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Archive for August, 2011

This short story is derived from an incident in Apuleis’ 2nd-century novel, The Golden Ass.

 

Part I

I thought I knew donkeys. I thought I knew a thing or two about asses. By all means they’re known to be temperamental, as stubborn as they are dependable, and some even say the gods take their form to keep an eye on the natures of men. This ass, however, was a very odd beast indeed.

I didn’t have him for long. He was in my company just a few short weeks. Yet, in that time I watched him closely, and there were things I noticed and dreams I had that spoke of his curious nature.

It was some time ago now, when I was stationed in Thessaly, near the town of Hypata, just outside of Larissa. One day I received orders to transport my commander’s gear from the fort to his new station, in the nearby town of Lamia. I set off to look for a suitable beast. I was not in a good mood, it must be said. My mate Strabo, who takes his wine without water, had filled me full of his impious libations the night previous. My head clanged like an anvil, my stomach was sour as old milk, and I did not feel the master of my temper.

On the way back into town I came upon a man riding an unloaded ass. What followed, it pains me to recount, was nothing short of shameful.

“Where are you going with that ass?” I asked.

The man, a dirty poltroon in such wretched, dishevelled clothing he could barely be said to be clad, glanced at me quickly then turned back to the road, saying nothing. I watched him a moment, dumbfounded, then called to him again, approaching closer.

“Where are you going with that ass?”

Again he ignored me, staring ahead like a dumb mute. I found this every insulting; coming, as it was, from such a peasant.

“You, beggar,” I shouted, marching up behind him. “Where are you going with that unloaded ass?”

Still the man said nothing. I wasn’t about to stand for anything of the sort, and so, without a moment’s hesitation, I took my vine-staff and clobbered him one over the back of the head. The blow knocked him clean from the donkey’s back, and he hit the ground like a basket of bricks. At last I had his attention.

“Sir, sir,” he gasped, all humbleness now, scrabbling at my feet. “Please, sir,” he whined, “I speak no Latin. Only Greek.”

“Alright, alright,” I said in Greek, embarrassed by this new-found sycophancy. “Quit your whining. I asked you where you are going with this unloaded ass?”

“Why, sir,” he replied. “He’s not unloaded. He’s carrying me.”

“Not any more he isn’t. Where are you taking him?”

“I’m taking him into town.”

“Well,” said I, “we need his services. The commandant’s gear is being transported from the fort.”

The man looked at me like a dumb beast. I don’t have much patience for fools, so I took hold of the ass’s bridal.

“He’s wanted to join with the rest of the baggage animals.”

I began leading the ass away.

“But sir,” cried the man, his face a mask of sorrow. “I paid fifty sesterces for him! He’s all I have.”

“It’s no use telling me your stories.”

“Please,” he begged, “sir,” he whined, “friend,” he pleaded, as though I was his brother. “Be more civil. I wish only the best for you and your men, for the success of the legion and the commander, for a swift promotion for yourself. I call upon the gods to give you these blessings, but please don’t take my ass.”

He grabbed at my feet, bowing and scraping on his knees. The blood ran freely from his head. I could see that I’d hit him too hard.

“And anyway,” he said, “it’s a useless beast and terribly vicious. It’s on its last legs! It has a horrible disease! There’s only just enough life in it to carry a few vegetables from my garden without collapsing. It’s not fit to bear your master’s equipment.”

The blow must have made him forgetful. Had I not just seen him riding on the beast’s back? It looked a fine enough creature to me. I kicked the man away and stepped up the pace. I was sick of the sound of his voice. He was like all the rest; a liar, a dodger, a sycophant. I was in half a mind to give him another whack and put him out of his misery. He came after me again, abasing himself, grabbing at me. It was the height of insolence.

“Please, please, sir,” he said.

He clutched at my feet and nearly tripped me over. Completely fed up, I turned and raised my cudgel to silence him. Next thing I knew, he grabbed me like a wrestler. Crouching right down, the scoundrel took me round the calves and heaved me up and over with uncanny strength. In the blink of an eye I was down on my back with the wind knocked out of me. Straightaway he was onto me. He hit me and bit me, then took up a stone and beat me round the head and shoulders. It was all I could do to protect myself from a fatal strike. His strength was phenomenal; I was powerless against his onslaught.

“Get off me,” I cried, reaching for my sword, “I’ll finish you once and for all!”

Seeing me go for my sword, the knave went for it himself, took hold of it, and hurled it away into the bushes. Now he resumed his attack with even greater savagery, raining down heavier blows. There were no witnesses, no one to intervene – if it went on a moment longer I’d be done for. I was nearly expiring already, battered and bruised and bleeding all over. It was the least I could do to protect my head. Then, after a terrific punch to the brow, I went limp. I lay like a corpse, playing dead, fearful that he would find my sword, or take a larger stone and finish me off.

Instead, however, my assailant stood back, surveying the scene with horror. Believing that he had done me in and fearful now of a capital charge, he panicked and bolted. Taking up my sword, he made off after the ass, who was already hotfooting it out of there. He caught him up, hopped aboard his sturdy back, and off they went towards the town. In a welter of shame, relief and exhaustion, I blacked out.

When I came around the day was well on its way towards evening. The air was thin and cool and full of the requisite dust. I could smell a trace of cooking fires from the fields and my stomach turned in hunger. I felt desperately thirsty.

I hauled myself up, a sorry sight indeed. If anyone had passed where I lay, then none had stopped to help. They’re all the same round these parts, a bunch of selfish good-for-nothings. Still, it was a relief not to have to explain myself, for I was ashamed and disgusted. To lose my sword was sacrilege. The thought of having to explain the beating I had received was bad enough, but to have lost my sword as well! Almighty Jove, I was in for it alright.

I stumbled towards town, head hanging low. The birds were settling into the trees and making a hell of a racket. I cursed them and all their twilight chirpiness; cursed all the insects that tickled my wounds. Soon, however, I began to curse myself. The more I thought about it, the more I knew that I only had myself to blame. I had been too rough with him. He was just another simpleton like all the rest. That ass must have meant a lot to him and I should never have struck him like that. Still, were it not for his rudeness we might both have been spared all this misery. After all, the army had every right to that ass. We take what we need, and that’s the way it is. I cursed the hides of both man and beast who had shown such stubborn arrogance.

As I neared the entrance of the town a group of farmers emerged, returning, I suppose, from the markets. They saw the state I was in and took pity upon me, asking how I had come to be this way.

“Please,” I said, “this is a criminal matter; a serious offence.”

I was ashamed to think how the town would view me should the story get round. I wanted to be rid of their sympathy as soon as possible. Thank the gods I was moving on to Lamia.

“But, sir,” said one, “you can hardly stand. You need help.”

“There,” I said, pointing to the town gates, “the soldiers will help me. It is a matter for the army, now leave me.”

I stumbled on, feeling the chides of their kindness. The smoke of the hearth fires was rising from the roofs, the softened bustle of the day’s end drifted from the dusty streets.

It was a relief to see Caecus and Appius on duty. I knew Caecus well and waved to him as I approached. The moment they saw how I looked, they came running.

“What happened to you, Marcus?”

“I was attacked on the road.”

“Are you alright?”

“I can’t speak of it here. Help me to the barracks, I’ll explain everything.”

“Here, take my cloak.”

Appius remained on duty while Caecus led me away. With the aid of his cloak, I passed unnoticed through the darkening streets. We went by the back ways and soon arrived at the barrack block. The moment I entered, my friend Strabo, already resting from his duty, leapt to his feet.

“Gods,” he said, “what happened?”

“Let me drink first.”

I made straight for the fountain. Strabo brought me a cup and I drank until I thought I would burst.

Soon the off-duty men had gathered around, anxious to hear my tale. Despite my disgrace it was such a relief to be alive and amongst comrades, that I felt a great urge to get the story off my chest. I called for wine to ease the pain and food to give me strength. With Strabo’s aid, I removed my clothes and took up a sponge to clean myself. With a cup of wine in hand and the sweetness of fresh dates on my tongue, I shared my story by the flickering lamps.

“Don’t worry,” said Phaestus, a man of local birth. “We’ll find this beggar and his ass and get your sword back.”

It was treachery, they declared, what this beggar had done. What right, after all, did he have to question my authority?

“It will be best if you stay in your quarters for a couple of days,” said Strabo. “If the commandant gets word of this, he’ll have you skinned. We’ll put the word out that you’ve taken ill with the fever.”

“But I’m supposed to transfer his gear to Lamia tomorrow.”

“A day won’t hurt. Tell him you were delayed on the road. Show him your scars – how well you defended his possessions! Now, describe again the appearance of this man who took your sword, and we’ll make sure to find him.”

“First thing in the morning,” said Phaestus, nodding. “We won’t rest until we get your sword back.”

The following morning, good to their word, the men went in search of my assailant. I stayed put in my cot, anxious for news and thankful of the rest. My ribs were bruised black and blue; my arms and thighs had taken a battering, my head pulsed like an open vein, but nothing was broken. If Fortuna wasn’t exactly smiling on me, she was at least wearing a smirk.

Just after midday I heard the sound of footsteps running into the barrack block. A moment later, a young soldier, Manius, burst into the room and shouted.

“Marcus, sir, we’ve found him! Come with me.”

Despite my stiff, sore body, I was on my feet in a flash.

“He’s holed up in some friend’s house and won’t come out. The friend denies he’s in there, but we know he’s lying. The neighbours ratted him out.”

“What about the ass? Finding the beast would make it plain.”

“There’s no sign of him – but listen; Strabo cooked up a story. He’s told the magistrates that the man we’re after has the commander’s silver cup. He said it was lost on the road and this man found it and won’t give it up. They’re on their way now, to try to coax him out.”

I dressed as quickly as I could; Manius assisted me with the buckles. The weight and pinch of the breastplate came as a stern caveat. I grabbed my cloak and we were off into the streets, marching as best as I could manage. It wasn’t long before we arrived at the house. It was a two-storey number with a shop downstairs selling grain and legumes. There was a big crowd already gathered round the front; all the nosy locals had come for a peep. Right in the middle of it all stood a man I assumed to be the owner of the shop, facing up to the authorities.

“It’ll only be trouble for you, Philo, if you don’t deliver him up.”

It was Spurius Posthumus speaking; a magistrate I knew and liked. He was short, but handsome; a straight talker who lived for the law courts.

“How many times do I have to tell you,” said the shop-owner. “Shall I swear on the Emperor’s genius? You’ve got the wrong house.”

“Come on, Philo,” said Posthumus, “enough of that. We know you’re an honest man and that you have a duty of hospitality. This theft could result in a capital charge. Your duty to the law brings no dishonour in breaking a bond of friendship.”

“Shall I say it a thousand times?” said Philo. “I don’t have anything to do with it.”

I moved up next to Strabo and tapped him on the shoulder. He turned and saw me and clasped my hand.

“Shsshh,” he said, “say nothing. It’s all in hand. The law’s on our side and it’s just a matter of time.”

“How did you find him?”

“It’s a small enough town. Apparently he’s a gardener for a private estate. He often sells legumes at the market. This man is one of his purchasers.”

Another of the magistrates now stepped forward. A local man whose name I never recall.

“If we have to stand here much longer,” he said, “things will only get worse for you, Philo. If you want to save your skin from a charge of aiding and abetting, then you’d better give this man up quickly.”

The shop owner seemed not at all frightened. Indeed, he maintained an air of calm shock that such accusations should be levelled at him. I’ve seen plenty of bad liars in my time, but this wasn’t one of them. He stood with his arms folded, his legs apart and his chin thrust out. His curly beard was tapered in the eastern fashion, and his eyes shone above this like those painted on temple statues.

“Come on, Philo,” said Strabo. “We know he’s in there. Your neighbour, good friend that he is, told us as much. He saw you let him in last night and we have it from others that this gardener is an old friend of yours.”

The crowd was having a great time watching the scene. Relishing the sunshine, unseasonably warm for this late in the year, they pointed and chattered and some called out, “give him up!”

“You leave us no choice but to search the premises,” said Posthumus.

“Search all you like,” said Philo. “You’ll only see what an honest man I am.”

The constables, who had accompanied the magistrates, went inside while the rest of us waited. Deciding it was best to remain inconspicuous, I kept my head down and watched the faces of the crowd.

Soon the constables emerged shaking their heads.

“We found nothing and no one. There’s not a soul in there, and certainly no ass.”

“What did I tell you?” said Philo.

“This is ridiculous!” shouted Strabo. “All you shop-keepers have your little hidey-holes from the taxman. If it’s not in the floor, then it’s up in the roof!”

The crowd had grown and were jostling to get a better view. I was shoved slowly forward, inside the ring around the shop. The other soldiers began to shake their fists and back up Strabo’s accusations; repeatedly invoking the name of Caesar. The magistrates, however, were preparing to leave.

Strabo turned back to Philo. “In the name of Caesar, bring him out!”

Philo stood firm, shaking his head. We might have stood there all day, bickering like a bunch of jealous wives, were it not for what happened next.

“Look, up there!” shouted one of the soldiers.

We all followed the line of his finger up to the roof. Just below the tiles was a small opening at the side of the building; placed to shed light into a loft. There, poking from the window, mostly in shadow but plain enough for all to see, was the snout of an ass.

“The ass! The ass!”

The crowd rushed forward, the magistrates gasped, the soldiers bellowed, and Philo slumped like an empty sack. The game was up. The constables rushed back into the shop and this time Strabo went with them, pointing with his sword to all the likely hiding places. They soon found the entrance to the loft round the back of the building. Gods only know how they’d had missed it in the first place, being big enough to winch up an ass. A ladder was soon brought and up went the men.

I waited outside; worried should my sword come to light and with it the truth of the matter. The crowd were laughing and calling for Philo to give up his gardener friend. Philo said nothing. He sat on the pavement with his head sunk against his chest. I felt sorry for him, liar that he was. After all, weren’t my own friends lying even now on my behalf? I had not forgotten that my own foolishness had brought this sorry business into being.

Strabo soon emerged from the shop.

“Where is he, Philo? Save us the trouble, would you?”

Philo shook his head. In his shame he had clammed right up.

A shout came from inside.

“Look here!”

The crowd surged towards the doorway. Inside the shop, a rug had been lifted, revealing a trapdoor. One of the constables opened the trapdoor to reveal a space filled by a large, wooden chest. He whipped off the lid and there inside, cramped and gasping for breath, lay a terrified man – the very one who had caused me so much pain!

“I’m innocent,” he shouted. “This has all been a mistake!”

“Innocent, huh?” said one of the constables. “So innocent you had to hide yourself under the floor!”

This set the crowd howling with laughter. The constables dragged the man out onto the streets, where everyone craned for a look. This business had caused such a stir in the district that peddlers had gathered at the fringes. It was a veritable market day, though I can’t confess I was feeling very jovial at this point. If that gardener was to start making accusations, things might turn awkward. The magistrates, however, weren’t interested in any public hearings. Without hesitation they ordered my assailant to be taken off to the prison. As they dragged him past, I turned my face from his sight, afraid should he meet my eyes.

Posthumus approached and stood over Philo.

“Don’t think I’ll be forgetting about this,” he said. “It’s lucky for you that this crime has such an air of public entertainment, else I might feel a lot less inclined to be lenient. You can thank the spectacle of that silly ass for your reprieve.”

With this he turned his back and set off. The other magistrates and constables followed. Everyone seemed to have forgotten about the supposed silver cup.

“Bring out the ass,” called a man in the crowd.

“Bring out the accomplice!” shouted another.

All manner of jokes were being bandied about now, playing on the theme of the peeping ass.

As though he knew he was being talked about, which in hindsight, I don’t any longer doubt, the ass let out a loud bray from up in the loft. The crowd cheered and applauded.

In the meantime, Manius and two other soldiers were working to bring him down. With a rope and pulley fixed to the roof of the loft, they strapped him in and slid him down the ladder, bringing him in through the shop.

Now that the gardener and the magistrates were gone, I went inside. Strabo was there still, searching in the hide-away. He had helped himself to some wine.

“You can relax,” he said quietly. “I have your sword.”

He lifted his cloak and showed me where he had placed it, wrapped in a cloth and stuck into his belt.

“Try this, it’s good,” he said, offering me a cup.

I took a sip and it was indeed good. Nutty and syrupy, yet it only served to make me realise how thirsty I was. Philo now walked back inside. He looked both dejected and concerned, and I guessed he was worrying about the fate of his friend.

“I suppose you think you can just help yourselves, do you?” he said.

“You should be lucky we don’t take the lot,” I replied.

Philo looked at me, penetratingly, and I lowered my eyes. He must have known the truth of it and had likely guessed my role in things; scratched and bruised as I was. Seeing this in his face, my feelings turned once more to shame.

Outside in the street, the crowd was beginning to thin. They had all seen the donkey and the spectacle was over. The hawkers began to drift off.

Strabo joined me, smiling with his squinty eyes.

“Not bad for a day’s work,” he said, taking out my sword and handing it to me. “I don’t know why these criminals bother. The world is full of snitches.”

Now Manius approached me, leading the ass.

“There you go, sir,” he said, handing me the rope. “A prize for all your trouble.”

The ass looked up at me. His eyes were wide and sullen. If anything, he looked resigned, almost bored.

“Thank you,” I said, to Manius. “He’ll make a fine recruit.”

And that, you see, was how I came into possession of the ass.

 

Part II

I wish I was a better man, but I’ve always been a bully. It’s why I wound up in the army, after my father spent his whole life working to get out of it. Were it not for my disreputable lethargy and uncontrollable temper, I should have risen up the ranks already and found my own way out. They say the army teaches you discipline, but we all know that garrison life is a licence for bad behaviour. And here, in the land of Dionysis, bad behaviour is practically a virtue.

So, by such means, the ass became mine. As to his previous owner, I cannot claim to know his fate, though I can claim to have had a further hand in it. Is it boastful of me to account for the wrongs I tried to right? Looking over this, I see that already I’ve tried to excuse myself. It’s also true that my account has drifted from its purpose, so I’ll keep it brief.

The following morning, stiff and sore, but a good deal better rested, I went into town to make an appeal to the magistrates on behalf of the gardener, my assailant. Without telling the whole truth, I told sufficient of it to make plain that this man’s crime was merely to have overreacted to extreme provocation; that his guilt was of a much lesser nature than first supposed. I requested that he be treated with leniency, indeed, that he should be released immediately, without any fear of his offending again in future. He is not of criminal mind or intent, I pointed out. He is a poor man who was treated with injustice. Sadly, it must be said, the magistrates were only too familiar with the corruption and brutality amongst soldiers; they accepted my story without fuss, having already had their suspicions about the events of the day before.

“Too often the law comes down on those who kick against the pricks,” said Spurius Posthumus. “You bully a man until he fights back, then put him away for assault. That’s justice for you.”

It was Thucydides, a Greek sure enough, who said that justice is the plea of the weak when they can’t enforce their own interests. It is indeed true, yet only the hard of heart would hold it as doctrine. I did not, however, offer financial compensation. I am not so soft as to throw money away, and besides, it would be tantamount to admitting my complicity.

I returned to the barracks and inspected my ass. It seemed a fair prize for the morning’s philanthropy. He was firm of leg and sound of body – his back young and strong, not yet bowed by seasons of bearing. He was a handsome beast with cunning eyes, broad flanks and a fair round gut. He protested as all asses will when subjected to a bath, though when I brushed him down and cleaned behind his ears, I do swear he showed a certain embarrassed pleasure. Owing to a small patch of red above his nose, I decided to name him Rufus.

Keen to avoid further trouble, I made preparations to leave as soon as possible. I took Rufus to the fort and there spoke with the quartermaster. It was fortunate that the commandant had already left, or else I might have had to meet with him in person. Along with the commandant’s equipment, I was given a letter of introduction and told to report to one of the town councillors in Lamia.

I loaded up the ass, and, just after midday, led him out on the road, arrayed in full military panoply. For amusement, I placed the helmet atop his head and strode with as much of a swagger as my bruised body could manage. For a travelling Roman soldier, it’s important to keep up appearances. I had made use of some ladies’ ointments to disguise my cuts and bruises, and hoped the polish on my shield and sword should be sufficient to deter any would-be assailants. The main roads are fairly safe round these parts. I suppose people such as myself have seen to that.

The journey was pleasant, despite the dust and heat. The road was regular and I strolled at an easy pace. As we walked into the flat country, I passed the time, musing to my ass. There seemed to be something conversational in his occasional grunts, and after a time I fancied he was listening.

“I would like to get married,” I told him. “But not to the local girls. It’s all very well to fall in love, but marriages must be politic. If I play my cards right I can hurry along up the ranks.”

“Eee-or,” said Rufus.

“And what of you, Rufus? Have you had much luck with the ladies? You certainly seem well enough endowed.”

He let out a strange, and very sanguine moan, and I pitied him; for the hairy flanks he must have to mount.

“Still, I suppose you fancy them in your asinine way.”

We entered the town towards evening. I had never been to Lamia, and as I drew closer it struck me as an attractive place. It was built on a slight rise above the plains, with numerous trees standing tall over the rooftops. The town had no walls, but soldiers were posted on the main road. I greeted them and explained my business. They gave me directions and I set off into the quiet streets. I had little trouble finding the councillor’s house, and soon enough Rufus and I stood before a fine building with a half-columned entrance and painted frontons decorating the roof.

I was greeted by a soldier on the doorstep.

“Here at last, I see.”

“Yes,” I replied. “I was attacked on the road yesterday and my injuries caused the delay.”

The soldier grunted and reached out for the bridle.

“I’m to take these things to the barracks. You, for some reason, are to remain here this night.”

“I’d rather come with you, if that’s alright.”

“I’m afraid not. You are to remain here. You should consider yourself lucky.”

“But I wish to keep this beast. I paid fifty sesterces for him.”

“You can keep the beast, but I need him for now.”

“Will you return him to me?”

“If I can, I shall do so tomorrow.”

Rufus grunted and hung his head. I wondered if perhaps he was growing fond of me.

The soldier placed me in the hands of a household servant then set off, in accordance with his orders, to report to the commandant. The servant led me round the back of the house and in through a small stable. I was shown to a vacant slave’s cubicle by the kitchens, where I was supposed to sleep. Despite the lowly conditions and the councillor’s apparent lack of interest in his guest, I was relieved not to have to report to the barracks, if somewhat baffled as to why this was so. I was given meat and wine and a basket of fruit, and after a wash-down in the yard, I turned in for an early night.

The following morning, the soldier who had greeted me on arrival returned with Rufus. He informed me that I was to reside here until the commandant was ready to see me.

“Why am I not to see him?”

“You must have done something right,” he said. “We’re all busy up there, putting the new place in order. There’s a thousand men digging ditches and putting up walls. No one ever tells me a thing, but it looks like they’re moving the garrison for good.”

I already knew this to be the case, but merely shrugged and nodded. The soldier’s words had troubled me. In the army, you get used to uncertainty, but no one likes it. Being singled out for special treatment could be as much a curse as a blessing, and I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted either.

It was another two days before I was ordered to report to the commandant. I amused myself by walking around the town and the local countryside, resting my sore body and talking to Rufus. I took him with me through the streets and amongst the farms, riding him whenever I grew weary.

I passed much time inspecting the whores around the theatre. They were for the most part a pretty desolate bunch, with hollow eyes and sunken dugs; but some of the younger ones caught my eye. What surprised me was how they seemed to catch the eye of Rufus as well. He often brayed and grunted in the presence of finery, and I soon learned to follow his gaze to the more delicious of these creatures.

“You certainly have good taste, my friend. She’s a real delight indeed.”

“Ee-orr,” said Rufus.

In particular I noticed that he had a penchant for fine patrician ladies, few though they were round these parts. He would raise his nose to a waft of perfume and take from it such pleasure as I’d never before seen in an ass. On several occasions I caught him wandering off down the street on the trail of a beautiful woman. I’ve heard that desire can come in equal measure for different beasts, but that it should be so consistent with my own was unheard of in my experience.

Rufus displayed many other curious habits. He showed little interest in the oats and hay I offered him, yet would stop by all the stalls and nod his head towards the meats and stews. I’ve never known an ass to eat flesh, yet he seemed very fond of it and would stand salivating by the open kitchens.

I also had trouble keeping him from wandering into gardens. He seemed strangely fond of flowers and would rush to devour them first chance he got. Odder still was how quickly he lost interest after his first few mouthfuls, walking away seemingly disconsolate.

One night I was sent a strange dream. Rufus and I were in the markets sampling the quality of various goods. We stopped by a weaver’s stall to inspect the tunics and cloaks, and I showed various of them to Rufus who gave his opinion on this or that, showing, once again, quite discerning taste. It was only after a while that I realised not only was Rufus speaking to me, but he was standing on his hind legs in the manner of a man!

When finally I received orders to report to the commandant, the fears I had been suppressing returned to me. Though I had tried to avoid him through indolence and fear of extra duty, he was not a bad man and had been friendly to me in the past. Still, I was afraid that he knew something of my encounter with the gardener. Perhaps I was to be given slave’s detail or flogged in front of the men.

I was marched through a busy construction site where many familiar soldiers toiled in the cool, dry conditions. The commandant’s quarters were in a new building, three-storeys tall, with a view right across the town and out to the plains. The bricks were still bare and unfaced, while the entrance lacked steps and had in their place a wooden ramp.

I steadied myself for what was to come and strode in past the guards.

“Marcus,” said the commandant. “You’re looking well.”

There was a hint of sarcasm in his voice, but I was determined to play it straight.

“Thank you, sir.”

“I have a job for you, Marcus.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Yes, you should thank me. You’re a lucky man, indeed, if at times a complete buffoon.”

He glared at me sharply and I felt his eyes like pinpricks. He was very tall, almost half a foot higher than me, and his lean frame gave him the aspect of a skeleton.

“First things first. Don’t think I don’t know about this business with your sword. Don’t even begin to wonder how I know, just rest assured that nothing escapes my notice. That’s why I’m at the top of this steaming pile. You’re a smart man, but you’re also a damn fool. I should have you flogged for being such a clumsy ass, but I know you’re worth more than most of these other imbeciles.”

He moved to the window, wide and uncovered, gazing over the plains. It all seemed a little theatrical to me.

“Maybe it’s this place, with all its witchcraft and trickery,” he mused. “A man has to be careful to keep himself from going bad.”

He turned and faced me directly.

“I’m sending you to Rome. I want you to take a dispatch to the Emperor, but most of all I want you to disappear for a while. We can’t have word getting around and you being a laughing stock.”

His eyes narrowed.

“Wipe that goddamned smile off your face!”

What a shock his words gave me. I hadn’t even noticed, but I must have started smirking. For a moment I believed he would retract his decision and have me flayed alive. Was I really being sent to Rome? This was a great privilege, not a punishment.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Don’t think you’re off the hook, soldier,” he said. “This is more than you deserve and I expect you to take note of that fact and pull yourself together. Take this chance to straighten yourself out and come back a man. Unfortunately, you’re the best-educated man in my pay and it’s probably time you were promoted. You know you’re a cut above the others, so prove it.”

“Thank you, sir. I will carry out my duty with all care.”

“Yes, you had better do so.”

He picked up three scrolls on his desk and offered them towards me.

“Don’t forget, I could just as easily put a shovel in your hands. Make whatever preparations you need to make, draw your allowance from the quartermaster, then leave as soon as possible. I want you gone by this evening.”

I concluded my business with the army and walked back into town. The coins were reassuringly heavy in my purse. For the sake of speed I would be using post-horses for the journey, and had little choice but to sell Rufus. I took him with me to the marketplace, and there, standing in the centre of the square, announced my desire for a quick sale. I was not concerned about the price, yet when a couple of ruffians approached me, I refused the sale out of feelings for the ass. I had grown very attached to him, more so than with any other beast before, and I wanted to be sure he went to good owners.

I was soon approached by a pair of finely-clad brothers. They were the well-to-do slaves of a rich master, Thiasus of Corinth, who had recently risen to the quinquennial magistracy: a pastry cook and a chef, who seemed rather fond of themselves.

“We only want him to carry food from the markets to the kitchen. If you really are worried about his welfare, then you needn’t be,” said the more portly of the two.

This seemed a happy enough situation for Rufus, and I certainly didn’t quibble when they offered me eleven denarii – a handy sum for an ass that cost me nought but cuts and bruises.

“Feed him well,” I told them. “But be careful. He’s very fond of the ladies.”

I took their money, gave Rufus one last scratch behind the ear, then turned my back on him and walked away. Before I had reached the other side of the square, I was struck by a terrible sense of loss. I stopped and turned for one last look, feeling as sorry as a child. The sight of him being led from the market brought a lump to my throat. What in the heavens was wrong with me? How little tenderness there had been in my life of late! Still, I had much to be thankful for. I was off to Rome.

 

Part III

There is little point in me recounting my journey from Greece to Italy and back. Suffice to say that it was made all the more remarkable by unseasonal storms and various diversions. I was a happy traveller and a very lucky one at that, and the many towns and cities through which I passed filled me with wonder at the greatness of Roman enterprise. I had hoped to meet the Emperor in person, but as I grew closer to Rome my nerves wore ever thinner at the prospect. In the end, I was spared an audience, and passed my commander’s dispatches to his trusted staff.

Three months later, I returned to Lamia to report the success of my mission. The commander was very pleased with me and told me I might expect my advancement to begin sooner rather than later. He was right to place his trust in me, for the journey had given me much time to reflect on my conduct and maturity.

After just two days back, whilst in the marketplace purchasing a new tunic, I recognised one of the two slaves to whom I had sold Rufus the ass. The fatter of the two.

“Hail,” I cried, approaching him. “You work for Thiasis of Corinth, yes?”

“Yes,” he replied. “Is something wrong?”

“Not at all. You have likely forgotten, but I sold you an ass some three months ago. Here, in this very market.”

“Indeed! Of course!” He seemed to become unduly excited about this and took me by the upper arm.

“That ass you sold us turned out to be quite a surprise,” he said. “Quite a surprise I can assure you!”

“How so? Is he still alive?”

“Oh yes, he’s still alive. And more alive than ever, it would seem!”

“What do you mean?”

“Listen up. A month ago we caught him eating all the best left-overs in the kitchens. At first I thought it was Agapios, my brother – the finest cuts had been disappearing for some time and no ass should have a taste for cured meats, sweets and other savouries. But, when I pointed the finger at him, he pointed it straight back at me. So the two of us sat up one night, spying on the kitchen, and sure enough, it was that ass of yours!”

“Ha!” I laughed. “He always seemed to have finer tastes.”

“Did he ever! But who could have guessed what would happen next? When my master heard of this he was so amused and intrigued that he invited the ass to dine at his table! When presented at the dinner table, he sat down on the couch as any man might, as though he were born to it, and showed himself to have perfect table manners. Not only could that ass nod and blink and bray in answer to questions, but he would, in his way, with his looks and his gestures, call for more wine! In the time you were gone, he became the talk of the town – so much so that all the local dignitaries came to witness this great spectacle. My brother and I have worked overtime ever since, for every night the noblest guests, happy to pay for the privilege, came to dine with my master and his ass.”

“Extraordinary! How can it be? Is he some sort of god?”

“Who knows? Many think that he is, my master included. Did not Zeus take the form of a bull? Did not Apollo once change the ears of Midas into those of an ass? Perhaps he has been punished by the gods, for some awful crime.”

“Or cursed by some black magic!”

“All the local philosophers and priests have their take on it. Some say he is just a clever beast, for you know as well as I that some are much smarter than others. Others say, as you have, that he was a man, transformed by witchcraft. Those who believe him to be a god can’t decide if he is a new god or an old one, come amongst us. No one risks offending him.”

“Where is he now? Can I see him?”

“He is on his way to Corinth. My master has returned to host his great games. He himself is riding the ass, and I believe he intends to make a great show of him in his home town. My brother has gone while I must stay here to keep house.”

Despite the sincerity with which his tale was told, I found this all very hard to believe. Yet, in the days that followed, I heard more and more gossip about the wondrous nature of this ass. The bawdier women spoke brazenly of their longing for his seed; the men of the town wished to be blessed with a member as thick as his. Increasingly, I felt a great sense of privilege; that if he were a god, then perhaps I had earned his favour by treating him with kindness. Yet, also I felt a grave sense of loss once again, as I had at our parting. To have traded away such a wonder for a few denarii seemed an inconsolable error of judgement!

I had little choice but to get on with my job and received, in due course, my promotion. As a Duplicarius I was now exempt from common duties and found my income doubled. I was thankful for this and made as good an account of myself as possible. Having witnessed the splendour and dignity of Rome’s cleaner districts, I was filled with ambition to rise higher still. Yet, all the while I could think of little other than my old friend Rufus.

In the weeks following my return, talk of the ass died down, as such things will without fresh incident. Then, after a month some news finally arrived. A travelling merchant, recently arrived from Corinth, stood himself on a stool in the market and called for the crowd’s attention.

“Wondrous news I have! People listen up!”

The crowd closed in and craned their necks. There was never anything so exciting as fresh news from afar.

“Citizens, hear me! You recall of course the recent tales of the divine ass in the household of Master Thiasis? Well, you’ll never believe what I’m about to say, but it’s all perfectly true!”

Like any good teller of tales, the man was drawing out his introduction until he had the full attention of the crowd.

“Citizens! Hear that upon his arrival in Corinth, preceded by his reputation, the divine ass was greeted with much enthusiasm. Not only did the local nobles all come to inspect and dine with him, but it is said that even women of patrician rank were paying a fortune to spend the night with him!”

This set the crowd roaring with laughter. He certainly had their attention, and indeed, mine.

“Believing him to be divine, and hoping they might become the vessel of a divine child, they risked not only their reputations, but their bodies as well! Soon master Thiasis, benevolent magistrate that he is, put on his glorious games; a great spectacle with largess for all and sundry. As a culmination of his week-long celebration, the master placed the divine ass on centre stage. There he was – ladies, cover your ears! – to make merry with a local prostitute. A real beauty, mind you, so that the people might see how gods are made! Yet, the divine ass, seeing this as beneath his holy dignity, baulked at the prospect and turned to flee the arena! He ran with such fury that no one could capture him, and soon he had lost himself in the streets.”

“What next friend? Did they find him?”

“They did not find him, but it seems that he found himself!” cried the merchant. “Several days later, reports came from the nearby town of Cenchrae that, during a procession of the goddess Isis, an ass had joined the worshippers. Amongst the priests he strode, walking in supplication before the idol. What happened next is beyond the old tales of legend. For, there, amidst the faithful, it is said, the divine ass consumed a bouquet of roses, and was transformed into a man!”

I felt tight beads of sweat break out upon my brow. I noticed that my knees had gone weak and my palms moist. The crowd hurled questions at the merchant, who assured and reassured that all he said was true. I had several questions of my own, but found myself unable to speak and in great need of sitting down.

Was it indeed possible, that Rufus had been a man?

“What was this man’s name?” called one of the crowd. “Tell us his name!”

“His name was Lucius, though I know not of which family. He was not a native of these parts, but travelled here on business.”

I listened further to the queries and answers. The merchant was adamant that events had transpired just as he said, and though such happenings were not common in this everyday world, I knew in my heart that he spoke the truth.

I found myself drifting away, my thoughts turning on recollections of Rufus. Had I indeed been kind enough to him? Had I treated him well? Was it possible that he was a divine agent, or indeed a god himself? Not a superstitious man, and hardly one for spending my coppers at the temple, I felt a great need to make a sacrifice. If I had, in anyway, offended this creature, then custom and common sense demanded all precaution.

If the goddess Isis was the patron of this wondrous ass, perhaps even his mother, then it was from her that I must beg protection and forgiveness. She was not a goddess to whom I’d ever given much thought, but like a great extended family, they all tugged at the folds of each other’s robes. I turned my soldier’s feet towards the sacral district where a small, new temple to Isis had been erected just five years ago. There, through the rising, aromatic smoke, in an expensive show of piety, I hoped to insure my soul against calamitous fate.

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Downfall

This is an account of my father’s dreadful head injury which happened on May 10, 2005. I finally got around to writing up the notes…

At quarter to five on a Monday afternoon I received a call from my mother telling me my father had fallen off a ladder and suffered a head injury. She was unsure exactly how severe it was, but he was “in a pretty bad way.” I ran out of my flat and took a taxi across town through peak-hour traffic, thinking how ironic it was that only moments before I’d been dozing at my desk, conjuring excuses not to go to university that evening.

When I arrived at Emergency at St Vincent’s Hospital, Darlinghurst, I had no reason to suspect it would become so familiar to me. I found my mother in a small waiting room beside reception, drinking a cup of tea and looking composed but bewildered.

“Oh, Benjamin,” said my mother. “Thank god you’re here.”

Before I’d had a chance to say boo to her, a social worker introduced herself as Julie and asked if I too would like a cup of tea. I said I would, then turned to my mother.

“What happened?”

“Your father was fixing the awning and he fell off the ladder. The lady who lives upstairs over the road saw him and called the ambulance.”

“But how bad is it?”

“Oh, he looks awful.”

“But how had is it?”

“I don’t know. They haven’t told me yet.”

Very little news had come through and, this, coupled with the shock, made it difficult to feel properly panicked or upset. I still felt a lingering air of inconvenience. How bad was it, for goodness’ sake?

Over the ensuing two hours our fears increased significantly as we learned more about the damage to my father’s head. On the surface there was a fracture at the back of the skull after a direct impact from a fall of between two and four metres, plus his two remaining front teeth had been knocked out. His neck and back were also uninjured, badly bruised and grazed, yet our biggest concern was about the state of his brain.

At last we had a visit from a young English doctor who told us how things stood.

“It’s a very serious injury,” he said. “To be perfectly honest, we can’t give you any guarantees at this stage. The next forty-eight hours are crucial. With an impact like that the brain can swell up so much it can cause a haemorrhage or stroke by pressing too hard against the casing as it expands. We just have to hope the swelling isn’t so bad. It’s a wait and see situation. There’s not a lot we can do.”

My mother clasped my hands and gasped back her tears. She was too thankful with the doctor, embarrassed by her own emotion. The doctor was handsome and kind and she wanted him to know he was a good man.

Shortly afterwards we were joined by my older, half-brother Dirk.

“What’s he done this time?” asked Dirk. “He just wants to be the centre of attention!”

I felt reassured once Dirk was there; with the news growing darker, numbers would help to shore us up against despair. Julie brought more tea and sandwiches and offered more comforting words. I soon began to feel sorry for her, coming face to face daily with others’ tragedies.

At seven-thirty we received word that we could see my father and we kicked immediately into gear. Julie led us via the spacious lifts to the Intensive Care Unit on level five. We emerged into a wide, hundred-foot long, linoleum-paved corridor. A garish series of canvasses stretched along its length. It was my first taste of a place that would become indelibly familiar to me over the next week.

We were led straight to the I. C. U. waiting room where we were introduced to the neurologist, Surita. She had conducted the first C.T. scan.

“There is a lot of bruising and swelling of the brain,” she said. “And until the swelling stops there is a very real risk of haemorrhage.”

It was the same news; she could tell us nothing different. Having already plumbed the depths of the worst-case scenarios, there was little left to be shocked about. The English doctor we had met before, whose name was Kevin, rejoined us. He was in a chirpy, sympathetic mood and he cheered my mother up no end. Ironically, that afternoon my parents had arranged to meet and see the film Downfall. Kevin jokingly suggested that since my mother was now without a date, he ought to take her himself.

It was another half hour before we were admitted to the Intensive Care Unit. We walked through in silent anticipation and reverence. There was activity all around, but I was compelled to focus only on my father. There he was, laid out, bloated and bloodied.  At first I struggled for equanimity against the sight of his breathing tube and the small pool of vibrating blood caught in its corrugated U-bend. In the thin line draining fluid from his lungs via his nose, pockets of bile shunted down towards a bag remaining mercifully hidden. I was saved by the whiff of hospital fluids, a tusk of alcohol riding the bestial emissions of bodies in crisis. I feared that I too, like my brother Matthew, might be prone to blood injury phobia; a mix of anxiety and disgust leading to a sudden loss of blood pressure which had caused him recently to faint and suffer a severe concussion upon a visit to see his girlfriend in hospital. I gripped the railing of my father’s bed and smiled with false courage.

My father was battered, damaged, hanging in the teeth of death. Yet he was also a tough old bastard and if anyone could keep themselves alive through sheer bloody-mindedness it was him. He was in an induced coma, to stop him struggling against the bonds. Apparently he had wrestled with the paramedics, ordered them from the house in a stream of filthy insults. It was incalculably fortunate that our neighbour had seen him. In the aftermath of his fall he had lain like a felled giant, flat on the bricks gushing blood. Yet still he had regained his consciousness, crawled to the kitchen, dragged himself to his feet and carried himself off to bed. He would have died there had he remained undiscovered; drowning in his own fluids as his gums poured blood into his lungs. I surmised that, in landing, his arm had swung back and through his teeth; what appeared by comparison a minor, cosmetic injury, might have been the final straw in this calamity. We stood and watched him a while, taking turns holding his hands and whispering words of encouragement, inaudible to him, but reassuring for us. We would need to maintain high morale for there was little chance this would be over in a hurry.

That night, I went home to my parents’ house with my mother and from there I immediately phoned my oldest friend Gus. He had done his PhD in traumatic brain injuries and would be able to tell me everything I needed to know.

“If it’s as bad as you say,” said Gus, “then he’s going to be out of action for a long time.”

“How long?”

“Months. Maybe three or four months to recover. It all hinges, of course, on how bad the damage is and how long the post-traumatic amnesia lasts. Post-traumatic amnesia effects the ability to form new memories. He’ll be able to remember the past, but it’ll be almost impossible to form new memories in the present. For a while anyway.”

“How long?”

“That’s the thing; it’s hard to be sure. The length of the PTA usually determines the extent of permanent brain damage. If it lasts a few days, he’ll probably be OK. If it lasts a week, then there will likely be more damage. If it lasts two weeks, three weeks, a month or so, then it often indicates quite severe cognitive impairment. It’s not a fixed scale, there are a lot of variables, but it’s a general rule that the length of PTA coincides with the level of damage.”

I talked to Gus for over an hour, quizzing him on every possibility. The staff at the hospital had told us none of this, focussing instead only on his immediate situation. It was a relief to know, but also difficult to stomach the idea that he wasn’t going to walk out of hospital in a week with some bruises and a headache. From what Gus had told me, he was likely to be there for two weeks at least, before undergoing extensive rehabilitation in a dedicated rehabilitation centre, to assist in restoring his cognitive ability. This was going to be a long campaign. I hung up the phone and broke the news to my mother.

It had become abundantly clear that we had on our hands a family crisis of the first magnitude. The following morning, on the way to hospital, I phoned work and took the rest of the week off, condemning myself to impending penury. Going back and forth to the hospital every day was hardly my first choice for a holiday. The idea of sitting and fretting on the purple chairs in the fluorescent mint waiting room of I.C.U for an indeterminate number of future days was not so much scraping the barrel as eating the bottom out of it so far as vacations went.

I must have looked anxious on that second morning, for the bearded, weather-beaten man sitting opposite, waiting for news of his brother, looked up from the Daily Telegraph and said:

“Don’t worry, mate. This place is like Valhalla. Everyone here’s a bloody hero.”

I chuckled and thanked him, feeling one of those fluctuating mood spikes so common to crises. From what I had experienced so far, I found little reason to doubt his words. The staff weren’t exactly wearing horned helmets, sporting battle-axes and quaffing foaming tankards, but even in the few brief encounters so far, it was clear that they were all heroes dedicated to the point of obsession. Irrespective of their medical expertise, having always been particularly squeamish, I was impressed merely by their willingness to deal with the array of revolting discharges with which they were regularly confronted. As I stood beside my father that morning, the man in the bed opposite continually groaned and vomited, shouting in despair for the assistance that was never absent. Elsewhere a man was swearing aloud after having soiled his bed. Across the room I could not avoid catching glimpses of the stricken; mostly elderly people, propped in often necessarily undignified positions, plugged into a tangle of tubes.

That morning I met Som, an amiable Thai nurse with a comforting smile. He had been assigned to my father and, over the next few days, he became our first port of call.

“Your father very strong,” he said, smiling. “Already he try to get up when he wake up one time. They want to keep him under sedation for at least two more days.”

Som struck me as a man who found it easy to be gentle. One minute he was hushed, addressing us with a touch of his soft hands, then his eyes would gleam with conspiratorial humour, as coy as a teenage girl. I was impressed by how personable all the doctors and nurses were, recalling public concerns about medical staff who lacked communication skills and empathy. Anna, Nicola, Jenny, Brian, Eric, all of whom had found the time to be pleasant and show genuine sympathy, even early in the morning or towards the end of twelve-hour shifts. They were comfortingly frank and honestly optimistic.

Outside in the waiting room, an altogether different culture was taking shape. This space soon became a meeting place for my father’s journalist colleagues and friends. I witnessed tears and laughter, black humour abounded, and within a few days the burden of co-ordinating everyone was transformed into an obsession. I began to feel almost at home when in this space, with its unforgiving lighting and repellently “neutral” scheme. It warmed considerably once colonised by passionate well-wishers. I felt a peculiar satisfaction in being the go-to man for news to some of Sydney’s best journos; presiding over the space and ready, at the drop of a hat, to deliver the much-rehearsed verbal press release.

By the third day, my father had survived the immediate risk of haemorrhage, but he was by no means safe. The doctors were still reluctant to be confident and chose to keep him in a comatose state so that his body might recover without the stress of consciousness and physical restlessness. After these first three seemingly eternal days, the hospital visits had already become routine. Going to and from St Vincent’s up to three times daily slowed down the passing of time by breaking the day into many different units; the heightened emotions added a raw edge that cast this environment more distinctly in black and white. Considering that I was, in effect, on holiday, I brought my camera and took photos of the people and the scenery.

The fine mildness of the dry May air was spiced with a pinch of desiccated leaf, and the occasional curlicue of chilled exhaust. The pale, cream hospital, bathed in crisp light and stark against the cloudless blue, radiated confident functionality. On the curving wall of the car-park entrance ambitious creepers pressed themselves arrestingly flat against the paint. By the sliding doors, invalids stood smoking by the drips they had dragged with them on wheeled stands. I found their relentless determination to get straight back into being themselves encouraging and amused myself with the thought that my father, being no idler in the assertive personality stakes, would be ordering everybody about again in no time. Despite his being such a difficult person, we only wanted him to be himself again as soon as possible.

Through the glass doors was an oddly welcoming world: purple carpet flecked with slashes of primary, a black wall embedded with backlit glass vessels, a collage of shots exhibiting local colour, monochrome photographs of a rodeo and a polished wood-veneer reception desk that everyone seemed to ignore. There was bustle about the café, tired faces of relatives, more ambling patients, a charity stand and industrial vacuum cleaner, and striding through everything with unaffected nonchalance, the doctors and nurses who had seen it all so many times before.

Having awoken to the possible consequences of the accident and the responsibility it entailed, these small details became comforting when appreciated in their own right. Optimism was a necessity and I began to view the journey as a quest for small positives alongside an indeterminately long road. My mother equally sought refuge in small mercies, and came to focus her attention on visits to the hospital café. “You must try one of these flans,” she enthused to me one afternoon. “They’re to die for.” As is so often the case with her, it was not long before she was on friendly terms with all the staff and receiving freebies.

Inside the I.C.U., Som remained our principal contact. He was always cheery and mild.

“Your father is very strong man,” said Som one afternoon, tittering. “All the time he try to break free. Even, unconscious, always, his body want to get up. Like Frankenstein.” He held his arms out and walked forward slowly, then began to giggle, his shoulders shaking amidst piping sibilations. His warmth was catching and we laughed along with him.

“We have to keep him tie up. Until he go off the drip.”

Like so much that is said in hospitals, it was both comforting and disquieting. We were concerned that my father might think he had gone mad should he wake up and find himself restrained. He had often joked that if he went “silly in the head” I was to finish him off with the two-pound hammer. Part of me genuinely feared that he might well have suffered irreparable brain damage and would never function normally again. I tried to focus instead on wondering whether or not he was dreaming.

On the fourth day, the breathing tube was removed and my father was allowed to emerge from sedation. Som was overjoyed when he saw my mother and I approaching the bed.

“Come see, he talking now,” said Som, beckoning us.

My father looked awful, swollen and bloated and sick. His face was bruised and veined by broken vessels. When first he spoke his voice was nasal and windy, transformed by the loss of his front teeth. It rasped like grinding gears, punctuated by coughs and gurgles.

“G’day, son. When did you arrive?” His eyes were bleary, yet his eyebrows attempted surprised inquisitiveness.

“I’ve got to get back to the hotel,” he said. “I’ve got to make some phone calls.”

“What hotel?”

He ignored my question.

“Where are you staying, mate? Which hotel?”

“He must think he’s still in Bali,” said my mother.

“You’re in Sydney,” we both said to him.

He looked at me like a dog shown a card trick.

“Sydney, we’re in Sydney,” I repeated.

He shrugged.

“When did you arrive? Are you going back tomorrow?”

His eyes glassed over and he sank back into his pillow.

As Gus had informed me, Post-Traumatic Amnesia, an almost inevitable consequence of any serious brain injury, impairs the ability to form new or continuous memories. It does not normally affect memories formed before the injury, although recollections of events immediately preceding the accident might vanish, sometimes for good. In my father’s case, he appeared to have lost at least five days. He had returned from Indonesia on the morning of the Friday previous, where he had been breaking stories on the 2005 tsunami and the Bali 9 heroin smugglers. He did not realise he had left.

A few minutes later he opened his eyes again and peered through a milky film.

“Ah, g’day, son,” he said. “You’re here as well? Everyone must’ve come over.”

There was a stab of shock at his forgetfulness. It was to be some time before we became used to it.

“This is Sydney,” I repeated. “Sydney.”

“What? I can’t hear you. Which hotel are you at?”

They tested his hearing that afternoon and got no response from one ear and virtually none from the other. We later learned that his left inner ear had been fractured irreparably in the fall and his right ear, which had previously been his bad ear, only had about twenty percent hearing. My mother and I went immediately and bought two foolscap notepads and a Texta.

Thus began our hapless attempts to communicate with him that were to improve only marginally over the coming months. My father would ask a question, almost invariably something to do with our whereabouts, and by the time we had written the answer, he had forgotten not only the question, but the fact that we were there altogether.

“Ah, g’day, son, good to see you,” he would say, as I sat scrawling an answer.

No matter how often we wrote to tell him that he was in Sydney and not Denpasar, it never registered for more than a minute or two. It was like talking to a deaf goldfish. His lapses in memory could be at times shockingly demoralising and at others, cause for amusement.

After six days my father was moved from I.C.U. to the Neurological ward, where, in his bed on level seven, he could see the city skyline. This helped to convince him that he was no longer in Bali, but only for brief periods. Even though he could see Centrepoint Tower, it still had to be pointed out to him and the import of its being there made clear. In the new ward, we found a wholly different culture with a host of different faces. Everyone moved at a slower pace compared to the decisive energy so prevalent in I.C.U. During his first week there, my father was in and out of a host of rooms, which didn’t help to anchor him in the present.

“Good to see you, son! Where are you staying? Did you fly in today?”

Now that he was more animated, it became increasingly exhausting spending time with him. The shifts at work I had felt so relieved to discard would have been preferable to the draining routine that replaced them. Since my father seemed to think he was in Bali, I began to daydream about being there. Sitting in the ward room with the blinds drawn on account of his headaches, I conjured pristine beaches attended by fawning palms. The tropics had always held a false lure for me, as someone more at home with museum collections or the dusty foundations of an ancient structure. Just at this moment, however, I would have given anything to be sunning myself on the beach, amongst the splashes, boasts and giggles of the Balinese meat-market.

After two weeks the post-traumatic amnesia did not appear to be lessening. It would have been a lot easier to deal with were it not for his deafness. My father began to ask more complicated questions. He was gradually becoming paranoid; unable to work out quite where he was or why he was there, his journalist’s nose for conspiracy led him to question everything. The problem remained that, by the time we’d written the answer, the question had slipped from his mind. I could see the fear in his eyes. It was an awful look of confusion, of a longing for trust founded on a dreadful mistrust. He was not eating and had, in just two weeks, shed almost ten kilograms. He looked taller, more angular, more fragile.

Throughout my life my father had always been an alpha male of the first order; a moustachioed masculine figure; a sailor, a sportsman, a marathon runner, gun journalist, a fighter. He was famously brave and famously good at what he did, undaunted by getting himself smuggled into Afghanistan in 1981 to join the Mujah Hideen who were then fighting against the Russians; spending months in Lebanon during the war with Israel and bringing home the bullets plucked from a wall that had nearly killed him several times; crewing boats that sailed around Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope. Occasionally he was wracked by nightmares of helicopter gunships, of religious fanatics who had tried to kill him for something as innocent as bathing naked in a stream. He was highly strung and unpredictable; at times irrational and angry, he took things out on his family, who were not especially forgiving. His real weakness was alcohol, yet it only made him more macho, and as a child, I’d hidden away from him; more afraid of him than reverent. I grew up spending the bulk of my time with my mother, whilst my father was on assignments, or in the pub. I was far more inclined to her habits – quiet pursuits like reading and writing – and found his machismo and jingoism disappointingly vulgar; until, that is, I began to affect it at the age of 16.

Now, weakened, restrained and bewildered, his eyes had the awful sadness of a caged, emasculated lion. He had become dependent on others, a situation that was initially unbearable for him. As I sat there, day after day, observing him and attempting to communicate with the notepad and gestures, I felt a great upwelling of annoyance at the stubbornness that had led to all this. That he had fallen off the ladder whilst fixing the awning in the backyard was the final consequence of his twenty-year effort to redecorate the house in Centennial Park.

From 1985 onwards, the family home had been a semi-construction site. My father had taken on almost all the tasks himself with the reluctant aid of his sons. For years, instead of being able to spend time with friends or play games with my brother, I had been handed a shovel or a paintbrush or a bucket on a Saturday or Sunday morning and made to work. I dreaded going under the house, where, cramped and wearing bicycle helmets, we shovelled out mud and dug channels and rubble drains in an attempt to stop the rising damp. Sure, he paid us generously, but at the age of thirteen I had no interest whatever in anything physical. Even later, once I’d started playing rugby, I resented this never-ending family obligation to work on the house. I hated it, and I hated the incompetence with which so much of the work was done. Three or four years after something was finished, the cracks began to appear. The mistakes were often very costly and, ultimately, it would have been far cheaper to have the whole house overhauled in a few months before we moved in. Had my father not insisted on torturing us all with his personal project for years – and my mother certainly had plenty to say about it, largely unheeded – then our family life might have proven far more harmonious. Had my father not tortured himself with his own project for twenty years, he might have instead spent his spare time finishing his third novel, then writing a fourth and a fifth and so on. Instead, he stalled, devoting himself to physical labour that only seemed to make him more annoyed, and indeed, more annoying. In the end, it led to his loss of a finger, when he dropped a great block of sandstone on it, and finally, this horrific accident.

I sat in the hospital and watched him for hours, laid up and afraid, stripped of his tyrants’ crown, yet still no less demanding. After two weeks he was moved to the Brain Injury Unit of the Ryde Rehabilitation Centre where he was to spend the next three months. Even after six weeks, he still suffered from post-traumatic amnesia, but it had gradually begun to lessen. It became possible to have conversations with him, albeit through the medium of the notepad and pen. These conversations mostly consisted of mundane small-talk, yet he also wanted to be informed of developments in stories he had been chasing in Indonesia. As time passed, he became increasingly paranoid, afraid that he was trapped in some sort of conspiracy. Story elements, jostling about in his imagination, began to creep into his utterances.

“Listen, son,” said my dad, grabbing me by the forearm one day. “I’m telling you right here and now, don’t get involved in buying those plane tickets from the Russians. They know all about it in New York. It’s too dangerous. I don’t care how bloody cheap it is, don’t buy those tickets from the Russians!”

On several occasions he would point to the notepads on which we wrote and demand that we keep them safe.

“Don’t let anyone see your notes! Keep them with you at all times. When you go, mate, you should take them with you. A journalist always protects his sources,” he said, banging a fist. “It’s not safe leaving them here; there’s people coming and going all the time. I don’t know who the fuck half of them are!”

After two months, they let me take him out to Camperdown to meet with a specialist doctor who performed Cochlear implant operations. We were relieved to find, when tested, that the nerves attached to his shattered inner ear were still intact, allowing him to have a bionic implant. A week later, the operation took place and, with the aid of a hearing aid on his other ear, we were at last able to hold a conversation with him in real time. I cannot even begin to express the relief that this caused, despite the fact that his comprehension was awfully patchy as he got used to the sounds through the devices.

“Mate, you sound like bloody Donald Duck. What’s the story? Stop quacking.”

On visits I would find him shuffling about the rehabilitation unit, wobbly and weakened, yet too curious and bored to stay in bed all day. Despite the bouts of paranoia, he was friendly with most of the staff; he seemed to have acquired more patience than I’d ever thought him capable of.

After three and a half months they finally released him. My mother felt a contrasting mix of relief that she no longer had to venture out to Ryde on a daily basis, and annoyance that my father was coming home where she would have little respite from him. Remarkably, despite the length and severity of his post-traumatic amnesia, despite the savagery of the injury he had suffered, my father’s brain had undergone an extraordinary rehabilitation. No doubt in part due to his strength of personality and fierce determination, his brain had re-routed much of its processing via less damaged regions. It seemed the principal impairment was with the bigger picture; he found it less easy to comprehend larger narratives, such as the complexities of a plot, yet he was by no means unable to do so.

On the whole, he was still very much himself. Indeed, in many ways, he seemed a taller, ganglier, more softly spoken version of the same man; a little more fixed in his inflexibilities, more prone to perseveration, but at the same time, slightly more apologetic. Having been brought so low, having for months relied entirely upon nursing staff and his family, and having finally understood how much effort people had put into his recovery and how dedicated his friends and family had been in following and assisting in his progress, almost none of which he would ever recall because the memories had never formed, he seemed quietly thankful.

My mother and I were also quietly thankful, though often we glanced at each other with the exhausted look of the long suffering. The power vacuum had brought about a coup, and the family dynamic would never be the same again. The totalitarian dictatorship of the Workers’ Socialist Democratic Republic Paradise, as my father called the house, had become, at last, through crisis, a genuine democracy.

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This article was first published in New Matilda on 23/08/11, with revisions: http://bit.ly/AfterGaddafi

The regime of Colonel Muammur Gaddafi is in a state of near total atrophy. Rebel forces, pushing east from the recently captured town of Zawiya, have now entered Tripoli in force. They claim to have captured eighty percent of the city already, including the highly symbolic Green Square, and one of the largest military bases, Mais, where they freed nearly 5000 people and opened the armoury to rebel supporters. Rebel forces are now closing in on Tripoli on all fronts, with reports of troops arriving by boat as well.

Gaddafi has reiterated his claim that he will fight “to the last drop of blood”, yet rumours abound of his intended flight to Tunisia. His spokesman Moussa Ibrahim claimed that “we have thousands of professional soldiers and thousands of volunteers protecting the city.” Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, who has been indicted by the international criminal court for crimes against humanity, has been captured and detained. There have also been reports that Gaddafi’s eldest son, Mohammad, has surrendered along with the presidential guard, though fighting continues at Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound. (The two preceding reports were both later disproved). Gaddafi’s whereabouts are unknown; in recent months he has been sleeping in hospitals and hotels to avoid air-raids. Whether Colonel Gaddafi decides to stay or flee and whether his loyalist forces put up a staunch defence will determine how this destructive and deadly civil war is concluded.

World leaders have intensified their calls for Gaddafi to step down and avoid further bloodshed. In a statement released yesterday, Nato urged those still fighting for Gaddafi’s regime to lay down their arms. Despite real concerns about the possibility of ongoing urban warfare in Tripoli and fighting elsewhere in Libya, the real question now is what happens after Gaddafi. What sort of process will emerge and who will the major players be?

In recent weeks in particular, the rebels and their representative body, the National Transitional Council (NTC), have come under much greater scrutiny as commentators turn their attention to post-Gaddafi Libya. The NTC’s ability to control the chaos that will continue to prevail for some time after Gaddafi’s removal is as yet untested. They are currently without a cabinet, after NTC chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil sacked the last one for its failure to investigate adequately the murder of General Younes. Divisions within the NTC have stymied attempts to form a new cabinet and the NTC’s legitimacy as a representative body has suffered. The rebels in Misrata, who have been highly critical both of Jalil and the NTC’s designated army commanders, stated that they have not been taking orders from the NTC. Indeed, it is the rebels in the west and not those based in Benghazi who so recently broke the stalemate, captured Zlitan, Garyan and Zawiya and advanced on Tripoli. There are certainly no guarantees that those western rebels will be willing to accept directions from Jalil and his associates.

Nato has announced its readiness to work with the NTC to ensure that “the transition is smooth and inclusive, that the country stays united, and that the future is founded on reconciliation and respect for human rights.” Despite its relatively high regard amongst those opposed to Gaddafi, Nato’s ongoing presence in Libya may, in the long term, serve to create tension and resentment and leave the door open to further accusations of imperialism. As soon as the fighting stops, they will do well to disengage militarily to avoid further complicating what will be a very difficult transition to a new constitution and government.

The recent assassination of rebel general Younes also raised significant concerns about the possible influence of Islamic extremists within the NTC, though most commentators agree that this influence has been exaggerated and overplayed. Inevitably there will be an Islamic element within the political equation. There are already strict Muslims in the NTC, though this should be no more alarming than the presence of devout Christians in the United States government. They are not advocating an Islamic state, but a secular one.

The chances of an Islamic state emerging in Libya are slim. For all its flaws, imbalances and human rights abuses under the regime of Colonel Gaddafi, Libya has long maintained a relatively liberal attitude toward personal freedoms. This is especially noticeable with regard to the situation of women. Partly through revolutionary ideals and a need for labour in a country with a population of only six million, Libya has given women access to many of the same rights and privileges enjoyed by men. Women not only dress in western-style clothing, but have been very active and visible in the workplace. Women have also been encouraged to serve in the armed forces, to the point that all girls in secondary school have been conscripted for military training since 1984. The people of Libya, though denied freedom of speech, especially in the realm of politics, are well-educated and have good long-term employment prospects should the political and economic situation stabilise. It is not a country known for Islamic conservatism and it is unlikely that the revolutionary zeal which began as a demand for democracy, would transform into religious zeal, though this is by no means impossible.

It needs to be remembered that the NTC is merely a transitional body. Despite significant difficulties, it has managed to present a surprisingly united front throughout the conflict. It must soon look to hand over its responsibilities to a more broadly representative body tasked with the implementation of a constitutional process. How successfully this can achieved will hinge on a number of factors, such as whether or not there will be an ongoing insurrection and whether or not reprisals will continue between different groups. Much is often made of tribal rivalries in Libya and loyalties in Libya, as is indeed the case throughout the African polity, yet the tribes have managed to work together in the past and sustained an overarching Libyan national identity. No doubt there will be disputes and discontent, sporadic clashes and political violence, but whether or not such possible tensions will prevent the process of building a new Libya from going forward is yet to be seen.

Despite the destructive nature of the conflict, much of Libya’s oil infrastructure has been unharmed. This will certainly facilitate a more rapid economic recovery, though it will likely be several months before sufficient social and economic stability return to allow full production. The transitional government in Libya will also face difficult decisions and temptations with regard to Gaddafi regime assets and funds likely to come into their hands. Nato’s intervention might ostensibly have been on humanitarian grounds, yet many voices have been critical of its member nations’ long-term ambitions with regard to Libya’s oil reserves.

Perhaps the most immediate concern for the present and in post-Gaddafi Libya will be ensuring the supply of basic services and food. Almost a million people have been displaced by this conflict, many of whom will soon begin to return home. These people will need water, electricity, food and, in many cases, housing. Libya’s wealth should be sufficient to cater for this, yet oversight and distribution must be rapid and efficient. There will also be questions over the detention and repatriation of the many foreign mercenaries recruited by Gaddafi. Whether their treatment is humane, along with that of Gaddafi’s political supporters, should be a serious concern for the international community.

This is indeed the end of the game for Gaddafi, but as in computer games, the boss fight is often the toughest. If he accepts defeat and surrenders or goes into exile, then hundreds of lives might be saved, just as thousands of others might have been saved had he not declared war on his people in the first place. After 42 years in control of Libya, Gaddafi must act fast to stop any further loss of life, for which he will remain, ultimately responsible.

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Paddington, 1983

Pug, the bull-terrier, cattle-dog cross, was straining at the leash, half-strangling himself in the process. I had often asked why we didn’t get him a harness, instead of the leather collar he wore, so that he wouldn’t choke himself all the time, but my father argued that it would only maximise his strength and give him more pulling power. It didn’t seem entirely logical to me, being far more concerned with the dog’s comfort. What I really wanted to know was why Pug insisted on pulling at the lead perpetually; he certainly did not seem concerned about his own comfort. Perhaps he liked the pain.

Poppy, on the other hand, border collie, mother of eight, was on a choke chain, and she too was no stranger to self-strangulation. On several occasions she had lunged forward so suddenly as to snap her chain and break free, almost invariably incensed by a motorbike or lawnmower. Indeed, anything with a two-stroke motor was sufficient to get her riled. For me, aged eleven, holding Poppy and pug was a tough assignment, not unlike having a Wookie try to pull both your arms out of their sockets.

We approached the house on Moore Park Road. My father had come to pick me up from school and as ever, brought the dogs. My older brother, who had recently started high school at Sydney Boys High, insisted on walking home by himself now that he was relatively grown up and, since my father couldn’t pick us both up, only I received the privilege of the canine escort.

As we reached the front fence, I looked up and saw a youngish, fair-haired man with a blow-wave and mullet, skip lithely down the steps of our house with a hessian bag over his shoulder. I had no idea what to make of this, expecting he had made a delivery of some kind, and stood dumbly watching him. My father, preoccupied with hooking the dog leads onto the fence so he could fish the keys out of his pocket, had failed to notice him altogether.

Then, my father looked up and saw the man walk straight out the gate. Instantly suspicious, he looked to the front door and noticed it was ajar. My father exploded into action.

“Stop!” he shouted, as the man broke into a sprint. My father threw the dog leads from his hands, shouting, “Benny, take the dogs!” and ran like hell after the man. Pug and Poppy yelped and barked at this sudden activity, and I had a right job getting control of them. I grabbed their collars and held them as tightly as I could manage, just catching a glimpse of the burglar disappearing around the corner, past the Olympic Hotel and into Regent Street, with my father in hot pursuit. My father had recently taken up running marathons and he was as fit as a fiddle. He was also a hard man who had been in several warzones. I figured that if my father caught him, the burglar was, to put it mildly, fucked.

I struggled to get the dogs inside the gate and through the front door, but once inside the house they seemed to forget all the excitement and run off in search of food. There, in the hallway, sat one of our suitcases. I tested the weight to find it very heavy, and rightly guessed that the recently acquired and, then, very valuable, video recorder was inside. Clearly we had arrived just in time. I tried to spring the sliding button locks on the case, yet they wouldn’t open. For some reason, getting the suitcase open struck me as a matter of the greatest urgency.

I ran upstairs to my bedroom to fetch the Swiss army knife my mother had brought back from Switzerland the year before. Taking out the awl, I plunged it into one of the locks on the suitcase, trying to prise it open. I worked it as best as I could, yet the mechanism still would not shift. I applied more strength, working the awl under the sliding button of the lock in an attempt to gain extra leverage. I tried as hard as I could until, suddenly, the awl snapped. I was terribly upset by this, and somewhat disillusioned with my prized tool. I gave up, called Pug to join me, and went to my room to sulk.

Fifteen minutes later my father returned home.

“Benny,” he shouted? “Are you alright?”

“Yes. What happened?”

“I chased the bastard all the way to the town hall, but he was fast as lightning. Then I got worried about you, so I gave up. I thought there might have been another bloke.”

“No,” I said. The idea had never occurred to me.

I pointed to the suitcase. “He was trying to steal the video. I can’t open the suitcase.”

“Son of a bitch,” said my father. “Anyway, everyone’s all right, that’s what’s important. Is Matthew home?”

“Nope.”

“Well, that’s good, I suppose, that he didn’t come home sooner.”

I hung around and helped my father set up the video again, something he did not, in fact, know how to do himself. The whole incident had seemed very exciting, and when my brother returned home half an hour later, it became briefly exciting again. I took great pleasure in recounting the incident, after which we soon forgot about it altogether and went upstairs to play Dungeons & Dragons.

It was not until my mother arrived home from work, however, that the burglary assumed new and greater proportions. The upstairs bedroom had been, to a degree, ransacked in the search for jewellery and valuables, and the thought of it upset her enormously. It was not, initially, the loss of any valuables that made her so distressed, as the invasion of privacy. The idea of some total stranger going through her things left her shuddering with a deep sense of violation. Then, when she discovered that an old jewelled watch of her grandmother’s had been stolen, she became quite distraught.

“Oh, Benjamin,” she lamented. “I’ve been meaning to have that watch fixed for years and now I never shall.” She burst into tears, and, being only eleven and a mere pinch or punch away from tears at the best of times, I joined her in weeping for this loss.

My mother spent the rest of the evening going through her drawers to see what else might have been taken. I hung around and mapped the highs and lows as she discovered things she thought might have been taken, and realised what was missing. My father, though not unsympathetic, was more inclined to manifest a “what the hell, nobody died” mindset, and he was principally annoyed that he hadn’t caught the burglar and sorted him out. “Fucking junkies,” he muttered over dinner.

In the days that followed, I found myself wondering what I should do in future should I again encounter a burglar. I spent a whole week of afternoons in the backyard, diligently practicing archery with my home-made, high-tension bamboo longbow. After nailing countless cardboard boxes on which I had drawn the faces of Orcs, I felt my aim was sufficient to take out anyone who came through the front door from the top of the stairs. This knowledge was enough to arm me mentally, and, over time, I began to long for the opportunity…

____________________________________________________________

Glebe, 1998

Edward heard the doorbell ring and paused a moment in his typing. He wasn’t expecting anyone and didn’t particularly want to be interrupted, so he shrugged and sipped his tea. It was probably his landlady who ran the video store a couple of doors down the road. She often dropped by to make a spurious announcement of some kind or another. Perhaps he was due for another rent increase.

Edward tapped a few keys noncommittally. It was two weeks since he had seen his supervisor, and having knuckled down and made some good progress after their last conversation, he found himself coming up against another barrier; he had only a vague idea of what it was he was trying to say. Nothing felt right. “Always stick with your gut instinct,” his father had told him. “If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.” Great advice, but while it was a good start knowing what was not right, knowing what was right was another thing altogether.

The doorbell rang again, and Edward shrugged again. It definitely wasn’t Pandora, for he knew all too well the way she knocked or rang his bell and Rickets the cat knew her footsteps. Rickets remained impassive at his feet. Edward looked back to the screen. Fifteen minutes ago he had given up on his thesis and turned his attention to his novel, Mr Tracey, Grocer. He had since written nothing but nonsense.

 “A double Jack Daniels thanks, mate,” he demanded politely of the bartender.

“Ice?”

“Yep.” Mr Tracey grabbed the drink, took a strong sniff of it and, clenching a fist, he sipped it.

“Nah, there’s no reason to be angry,” he mumbled, smiling wryly and taking another sniff of his drink. “What’s it to be cross? What boots it to maunder?”

“What’s up, mate?” asked the bartender.

“No point worrying about things, mine honest tapster.” said Mr Tracey. “All’s well in love and war.”

The doorbell rang again. Edward’s attention was hanging by a thread. He could feel his mind drifting into the opiated visions of his daydreams, suckling from the fecund nipples that had nurtured his first novel, Moscow Gherkin on the Rocks. The doorbell rang twice more and he ignored it with new fervour. He had sworn he would write until midday at least and nothing was to get in the way. He paged up and down rapidly, watching the words leap into streaks, spotting vocabulary like fleeting fauna. Then he heard a banging sound that seemed to be coming from the kitchen. He paused and listened, feeling sure that someone had entered the house. The sounds were muffled and indistinct, for, being the first cold day in autumn, he had closed all his internal doors to keep warm.

The banging continued and Edward grew certain that it was coming from the kitchen. Then he remembered: the landlady’s brother, Ali, was coming over to fix the tap sometime this week. It had an annoying leak and he wanted it seen to. Edward really wasn’t in the mood to talk to Ali. The last time they met Ali had enthused interminably about what a visionary Muhammad was for predicting the invention of the aeroplane in the Koran. It was alright when the Jehovah’s Witnesses came knocking, at least he could challenge them on their historical knowledge of the rise of Christianity and the textual validity of the New Testament. With his landlady’s brother, a modicum of diplomacy was required to ensure that he didn’t end up out on his ear for being an evangelising atheist.

The banging continued; a dull, soft, reverberating thud. He’s probably hammering away at the sink, thought Edward, with the Koran stretched out beside him, open to the plumbing section; a vision of the Arab armies at the battle of the Yarmuk coursing through his mind…

Then there came a loud smash – quite clearly that of breaking glass. Alert at once, Edward kicked the cat off his foot and stood quickly. It was close to ten in the morning and he had not bothered dressing yet, being attired only in a knee-length flannel night-shirt his mother had bought him. He opened his bedroom door and walked through to the kitchen. Seeing no one there, he walked on into the front room, where he was greeted by a most unexpected sight, almost amusing for its absurdity. A man, possibly in his forties, was trying to squeeze himself through the tiny rectangular window above the door. In doing so, he had pushed it inward as far as it could go so that it pressed against the decorative flange on the top of the stately, built-in cupboard. The pressure on the frame had bent the window and caused the glass to break, which now lay in shards on the carpet. So intent was this man on gaining access, that he neither saw nor heard Edward approach.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” asked Edward.

“Er, what?” said the man, startled. He stared at Edward fixedly a moment, and paused, his shoulders still half through the gap.

“I said what the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Er,” said the man, trying to climb down, “I thought this was my friend Mick’s place.”

Edward advanced right to the door, and opened it as far as the chain-lock allowed, the man scrambling onto the landing.

“What?” he demanded through the gap.

“Yeah, I thought this was my friend Mick’s place.”

“That’s bullshit!” Edward was quite definitely incensed now. This was, after all, a terrific imposition on his time. He took the chain off the door and opened it more fully.

“Nah,” continued the grey-haired man, who seemed surprisingly well-dressed for a burglar, “I honestly thought this was my friend’s place.”

“Rubbish!” Edward shouted again. “That’s a lie. You’re a fucking burglar, that’s what. Go on, fuck off!”

And the man turned and ran as fast as he could.

Edward stood shaking with fear and anger as he looked at the broken glass beside his bare feet.

“What a bullshit artist,” he said, closing the door.

He walked back into the kitchen and put the kettle on, more out of habit than anything else. A moment later he remembered he had a cup of tea beside his computer, so he went and sat down to continue writing, shaking his head in disgust. It wasn’t long before he knew he would never regain his concentration that morning. He dressed, put on some shoes, and went to see his landlady at the store next door.

____________________________________________________________

Cambridge, UK,  2001

Dirk was woken by a loud bang. It was followed by the clink of dragging metal. He turned his head to the French doors and was surprised to see one of them wide open, its latch scraping on the gravel path outside. Seconds later, he was very surprised indeed and sat bolt upright in his bed. There was simply no way the door could be open.

What time was it? He looked to the stereo; 0634. Too early for bedders, cleaners or porters to come around; it could only be a practical joke or something more sinister. Dirk threw off the covers and stood quickly. It was a cool morning at the end of April, and the night before he had returned from Turkey with a head-cold. His ears were blocked and he shook his head to try to clear it.

He moved to the door to inspect it; somehow it had come off the latch and swung wide open in the wind. Only a person, or a monkey, could have done such a thing, surely. The snout of a dog? A wild pig? A curious cat? A squirrel? There were often deer in his front garden, though they were so timid as to never approach the house. Dirk made straight for his desk to look for his wallet. It should have been there, yet it was not. He cast his eyes about the room; it was not on top of the television, not beside his bed, not on the floor, not on the chair. He looked for his shoulder bag and it too seemed to be missing.

“Christ,” he whispered, realising he had been burgled. Someone must have snuck into his room while he was asleep. The thought was so awful that he shuddered in fear of his life. He might have been murdered! His blood ran cold with an intense feeling of violation, before flushing hot with the adrenalin of a dawning crisis. Then he heard a footstep outside on the gravel. Then another. Someone was standing very nearby, just around the corner out of view.

Without thinking further on the matter, wearing just a small pair of shorts, Dirk walked straight out the open French door and stepped barefoot onto the gravel. He marched with purpose, unblinking, determined. He was not afraid and asked of himself no questions. He was going to retrieve his wallet – it was as simple as that.

Dirk rounded the corner of the house and there, standing under the bike shelter, going though the contents of his shoulder bag, was a pale, blonde-haired man in a dark green army jacket. Dirk could not see his face clearly, as he was staring downward, intently looking through Dirk’s shoulder bag. Dirk walked steadily towards the man, who was so preoccupied that he neither saw nor heard Dirk’s inexorable approach. Dirk picked up the pace, closing the distance in a matter of seconds. He had only sufficient time to think “fuck you, arsehole” before punching the man as hard as possible in the guts.

The rogue had the wind knocked out of him and doubled over with a strangled cry of pain. Dirk didn’t hesitate to take him in a headlock with his left arm. With the bandit thus accosted, struggling and kicking, Dirk used his right arm to deliver repeated punches to his stomach, hoping to stop the felon from recovering his composure altogether. The man stank of neat vodka and cigarettes; he was of similar size to Dirk, though clearly lacked the tone and strength to throw him off. The two stood there a moment in an awkward embrace; the burglar struggling to free himself, to protect his stomach from the incoming buffets, and Dirk working hard to subdue him.

Only now did Dirk have time to think. Engaged thus in a struggle, with no one about at such an early hour, he had no choice but to win. It was an ancient and grim contest and losing was not something he could allow. The gravel cut into Dirk’s bare feet and the pain gave him a new lease of strength. He heaved with all his might and hurled the burglar into the wall. He was still putting up a strong resistance, and Dirk knew he had to get him down and pin him. He swung the man out from the wall, and swung him back in, slamming his body hard up against the plaster. The burglar shuddered with the impact and some things spilled from his pockets; a long screw-driver, Dirk’s passport. Dirk slammed him into the wall again. There was no talk, no swearing, no shouting, no cries of pain. Dirk only had one thought in mind, “I must monster him and never let him gain the advantage.” But then what? Hold him until security arrives? Shout for help and hope the police come quickly? He tried to wrestle  him to the ground, yet the burglar kept his feet.

Then, without quite knowing why, Dirk released him. He let go his hold, stepped back, and put his fists up. The burglar stumbled forward, sped away from the wall, and began to run on the gravel. Dirk stood watching, wondering why he had let him go and what he should do next. The burglar kept running until he was twenty metres away, then he turned and looked at Dirk over his shoulder. That look was, without a doubt, the greatest look of terror Dirk had ever seen. The man’s pale face, framed by lank blonde hair, was twisted in shock and fear. Dirk stood watching; the burglar reached into his army jacket and pulled out a large bottle of vodka, which he then hurled into the bushes before fleeing towards a purple bicycle leaning against the hedge.

Dirk picked up his passport, he picked up the screwdriver, then ran around the corner to where the bag had been dropped. He expected that he would find his wallet here, but within seconds of picking up the bag realised that it must still be with the burglar.

He ran inside and tossed the things on the bed.  He picked up his keys, ran back outside and, still wearing only a pair of shorts, unlocked his bicycle and ran with it out onto the driveway. The house, one of many fine properties owned by St John’s College, Cambridge, was surrounded by other college houses with spacious, attractive grounds. He wasn’t sure which direction the burglar had gone in, and there were many in which he could go; through the gardens, cutting through hedges, down the drive, out the back fence into the tennis courts of St Edmunds College. The purple bicycle was gone, so Dirk felt certain he must have ridden out onto the street.

Dirk hopped on his bike and rode out onto Madingley Road. Like a goalie in a penalty shoot out, he had to make a call. Left or right, yet there were still other possibilities. Dirk chose right and pedalled furiously down the pavement. The cool autumn air was freezing on his fingers and his cut and bleeding feet stung on the rough pedals. He swung around the corner and rode down the street, hoping to catch a glimpse of his quarry. Yet, the burglar was nowhere to be seen.

Dirk made several circuits of the neighbourhood over the next half hour. He hoped he might find something discarded, something tossed aside and abandoned. After all, what could the chap do with his Australian bankcards? He rode in all directions, even out into the wheat fields of the farms that ringed the town. Soon, however, the cold got the better of him, dressed as he was in just a pair of shorts, and it being a cold April morning in East Anglia. He took a last look across the rising heads of wheat, then rode home to contact the college and the police. On the way home, he began to wonder if he shouldn’t have just demanded the return of his wallet from that beggardly scoundrel…

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August 21, 2011

It’s a grey day, but I’m bathed in abundant natural light. The morning sun, having shifted across the Dijon mustard tiles and the royal blue Persian rug, now hides behind the clouds yesterday was supposed to bring. Outside my wide, elevated, east and south-facing windows, is a peaceful expanse of back yards and flourishing trees; their branches gearing up for spring. Being at the back of the building, the traffic sounds reach me like a distant, muffled wind. It’s peaceful enough that the birdsong is paramount, and my little old fridge keeps largely to itself.

I moved here just yesterday, to this sweet little studio in Glebe, and already I’m in love with the place. After a month of searching, considering many options, of sharing or flying solo, I inspected this place last Saturday morning and instantly saw the potential. I had actually come to inspect this unit the week before, yet in a moment of folly wrote the address down as Glebe Point Road and found myself wandering into someone’s house. Having missed the inspection time, I was ready to give it up for dead. When no one subsequently applied, I was further inclined to pass pre-emptive judgement that the place was, in fact, undesirable. Yet my at times insatiable curiosity got the better of me, and thank goodness it did.

The previous situation, a large, friendly share-house on Queen’s Park, had been good in every regard with the exception of its outlook. The room, whilst nice in itself, faced onto a brick wall which made it oppressively gloomy during the day. The neighbours’ front door was also a short distance from my window, and their constant comings and goings, their children’s tendency to practice recorder badly and bounce basketballs outside on the path, and their recent acquisition of a small, yappy dog were driving me bonkers. When I returned from visiting my brother in Brisbane, where I had slept on a wide, comfortable, solid wood queen-sized bed in a room gold with morning sunlight and myriad magpies singing like squeaky swings outside the window, I knew instantly that I could wait no longer. I had to get out, and so I did, fleeing briefly to the ancestral home so I might find a new place at leisure, without the pressure of having to fix a departure date. The Workers’ Socialist Democratic Republic Paradise (hereafter, WSDRP) as our family home is known, proved again to be both wonderfully welcoming and convenient in a time of transition.

Today is my birthday and it is very pleasing to wake up in such a lovely place. Even the onset of heavy weather only fills me with a greater sense of romance. There is nothing quite so well suited to making a place feel homely, than to sit reading by a rain-lashed window. The move here was very smooth, and my regular helper and good friend Paul again deserves my great thanks for his efforts in driving me and my belongings. I ought also to thank the Holden Commodore, which impressed me with its capacity – especially when I slotted my half-sized fridge across the back seat; a fridge, incidentally, which my much-missed French Nana gave to me in 1993 when she moved into my old room at the WSDRP. It still works like a charm, despite having been left on in the laundry for the last six years to form a vast, solid-core iceblock around the small freezer compartment. Paul helped me to load and unload the car, whilst I did all the carrying work. My zeal, pace, energy and efficiency, earned me the nicknames Conan the Removalist and The Removalator. There is definitely something to be said for keeping fit and developing one’s upper body strength!

Moving into a place has always been one of my very favourite activities, whilst, conversely, moving out is one of the least enjoyable. This move had in fact begun on Wednesday, the day I signed the lease. After finishing teaching at one, I went straight to Surry Hills to purchase a bed and a desk, the core furniture I lacked, having lived since returning from England in furnished houses. I was in something of a hurry to do so as I was signing the lease in Concord at three o’clock, and I wanted the furniture delivered later that afternoon. It made sense to have the furniture delivered directly to the new address, and thus obviate the need for a removal truck, which I would not otherwise require.

The range of furniture available in the store proved disappointingly small. The business had relocated from Bronte, and, having been to their previous store, which covered three storeys, I had expected a wide range of beds and desks. Yet instead I found a single storey, quite sparsely stocked. It was in this that I was unexpectedly and unknowingly fortunate. The choices lay at either end of the  scale and, remembering one of my favourite Chinese proverbs, “The bitter taste of poor quality lingers long after the sweetness of a good bargain,” I knew I would regret the cheaper, aesthetically poor choice. After all, what had been lacking in my last place was aesthetics.

So it was that, after wandering around the shop floor, stepping repeatedly past the big, grey-beard drowsy dog, I knew I had no choice but to buy the solid and stylish wooden queen bed I had been eyeing for the last five minutes.  Not far from it was a wonderfully weathered old wooden desk of epic size, yet slender legged and not too brutish. The one seemed the natural corollary to the other, so I mentioned my interest and cut a deal with the chap, who gave me a very nice discount. On top of this, he promised he would deliver at six thirty, and since I was to be his sole helper in unloading the goods, he would not charge for the delivery. It was, after all, a sweet bargain, but for quality.

I took a train to Burwood and walked out to Concord to sign the lease. It rained all the way – which one of my Korean students tells me is a good sign when moving house. As someone who loves the rain, I felt quite content as I returned via a long and congested bus-ride down Parramatta Road to Glebe. The brake-lights hung through the humid window in a world as sullen and grey as lamb fat. I felt an oddly peaceful eagerness, knowing I had time to kill before the delivery.

Here’s a poem I once wrote about Parramatta Road in 2005, which I throw in here by way of diversion.

 

Parramatta Road

These tired shops will never bring

slow-walking couples, blithe and entwined,

such is the hustle, the bash and the hiss;

heaves of freight, rubber and metal,

rolling petroleum, fog of exhaust.

And,

every morning,

as the bitumen warms,

as this smeared, groaning gully

fills freshly with urgent trumpets,

this stretched fan-belt girdle,

this gasoline funnel, this road

is like Christ risen

on a noose.

_________________________

Having arrived at the apartment and determined which keys were which, I found it ever so slightly smaller than I remembered. I realised now that the bed was not going to fit where I had originally intended it to go, and felt a momentary uncertainty about my decision both to purchase such a large bed and to rent this flat in the first place. I became concerned about sleeping in the same space as a fridge. Were they not prone to groaning and rumbling throughout the night? Was I not someone who could not bear the almost inaudible hum of a device on standby; someone with a phobia of ticking clocks – who on earth wishes to hear their life disappearing like that? Would sleeping with a fridge be impossible? Would it unnerve me, disturb me, send me bats? I pushed this fear aside. The space was very nice, with great light; it was clean, peaceful and harmonious, and I trusted my ability to make it very nice indeed. Sleeping with a fridge, bah! If it bugged me, I could always turn it off at night and no doubt all would keep til the morrow.

With two hours to kill, I set off for Vinnies on Glebe Point Road and proceeded to buy up all the floral granny plates I could find. I also bought some cups, saucers, mugs, glasses, a milk jug, silver sugar bowl and a large painted tray with a lacquered fruit fresco as its base. Using this tray, I carried my collection of crockery and utensils back through the rain to the apartment. After washing and stacking it on the sink, I sat down to read The Butcher’s Wife by Li Ang; a gripping, yet very visceral novel which I would recommend, though not without reservations.

At six thirty the chap was outside with the furniture. Together we brought the various parts of the bed in without any difficulty. The desk however, being all of one piece, proved more of an obstacle. Unable to fit through the door, the only option was to haul it up through the back window. What followed was equal parts comic and heroic. With me at the top hauling on the ropes, and the chap from the store standing below on a piece of backyard furniture and trying to hold the desk steady over his head, we managed to get it through the back window after much straining. Sadly, in my wrestle to drag the desk through, I cracked the glass of one of the window panes.

Come Saturday, I finally had the chance to put everything in order and decorate my new home. It took only two hours to order the furniture, put books on shelves, hang clothes, fill drawers, make the bed, lay the rug, stock the kitchen cupboards and bathroom cabinet, and set up my computer. The next few hours were then spent decorating; arranging photographic prints, hanging poster reproductions of artworks, deciding which tea-towels to display…

And so here I am on Sunday morning, feeling almost indecently pleased with myself. The birds are singing, the light is glorious, the outlook soothing, the drizzle calming, the bed exceedingly comfortable. In such a short space of time I have already recovered a long-lost sense of equilibrium. The absence of pressure or interruption, the freedom from other agendas, the serenity of complete overlordship over one’s domain, have flooded me with relief. For years previously I had lived alone in apartments and houses, and it had always given me a far stronger sense of self. The last time I lived alone was in Glebe, just eight doors down the road from my current address. Indeed, if I look out the back window, I can see the balcony of my old flat. That was famously given the nickname “Cornieworld”, and it was a most excellent place in which I wrote a great deal, including my second-last novel. Funnily enough, the above poem was also written whilst living there. I was extremely happy in Cornieworld, though I stayed only a year as my growing disappointment with John Howard’s Australia inclined me to move back to Cambridge.

Since 2006 I have shared houses with others, and whilst this has been largely a pleasurable experience, I have not in all that time felt entirely at home. Even in the most relaxed and friendly of households, there is a need to keep up appearances. Even with the most open-minded and casual people, there is an awareness that one is observed in one’s own home. Occasional inconveniences and disturbances occur that are beyond one’s control; the bathroom is busy, the stove-top full, the oven in use, the kitchen is full of people when one is really not in the mood for conversation, and does not wish to be seen looking so tired and frumpy. All these things take their toll, and despite the good company of housemates, it is not possible to choose at which times one has this company.

Already, just one day into my new house, on the first day of the 39th year of my life, I feel transformed. There is no one above me and no one below me, for despite being on the second floor, below is the laundry and a store-room. I can step as heavily as I please, play music loudly, speak without fear of being overheard, and nor do I seem to hear anyone else. My new, old furniture looks magnificent; the pot plants, the rug, the photographs, the book spines, the tea-towels, cups and saucers, the wooden chair, the bedside table, the trio of soft toys, Bilby, Platty and Bünchen sitting beside me, all fill me with a sense of wholeness.

When I said I was moving back to Glebe, my old friend Simon, knowing how much I love the area, said “Ah, you’re going home!” And, for the first time in years, I really do feel as though I am at home. And that little old friend of mine, that ever durable, long-lasting fridge, makes barely a sound at all.

Happy days indeed! Cornieworld 2 is born!

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Hong Kong

Rain and ocean spray blurred the entrance to Hong Kong harbour. The ferry windows were near opaque with streaks of water, and the low, heavy clouds cropped the horizon. I was coming in from Macao, on a choppy sea, with an English chap whom I suspected of having Tourettes. As the express boat bobbed and slapped on the waves, I wandered up and down the aisles, looking for photographs and trying to avoid any further conversations with my odd companion.

The night before a typhoon had struck and my flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong had been cancelled. There was the usual chaos at the airport with passengers being unnecessarily rude to staff and the airline being unnecessarily unhelpful to passengers. I sat it out with a Coke and let the more enraged customers do the hard work. One American lady, whose name was Rebecca, performed admirably. She locked horns with Air Asia and ensured that we would all be compensated with standby flights the following morning. Her next trick was to make sure we got accommodation for the evening, at a significant discount, in a hotel near the airport. Nice.

I was so impressed, I went and congratulated her and, next thing, we were a team. It was at this point that the English chap, let’s call him Harry, joined us. He did not cease talking for the next few hours, irrespective of whether or not someone else was speaking at the time. Whilst he did not actually exhibit the random swearing associated with Tourettes, his continuous, involuntary and very pronounced talking and blinking was suggestive of the condition. At first I liked him, and I tried very hard to continue liking him, but after a few hours, I was ready to lose him at the first opportunity. Rebecca soon became his best friend as well, and when the three of us, plus several others, arrived at our hotel in a minivan, it was a real tussle to avoid being his chosen interlocutor.

When we arrived at the airport the following morning, the best they could do was fly us to Macao. This was fine with me, except that I wound up sitting next to Harry. I was working hard to be friendly with him and felt guilty that I wasn’t enjoying his company, but he was genuinely getting on my nerves.

As we neared Macao, we passed through the very typhoon that had caused all the trouble in the first place. Sitting beside the wings, I watched the heavy rain rush violently over the engines. It was a little unsettling, especially with the turbulence, but this was as nothing compared to the reaction of my companion. Harry became utterly terrified, and curled up in his seat, flinching keenly at every bump. He talked his way through the entire experience, saying over and over things like “we’re going to die, we’re going to die,” “I should have stayed in Bangkok!” “Why did we have to catch this flight!” “That wing’s going to fall off!” “Tell me we’re not going to die!” and so on. I felt a mixture of pity and embarrassment on his behalf, especially when two Chinese girls across the aisle began giggling at him. I tried my best to reassure him, offering soothing phrases such as “come now, we’ll be all right, chin up”, but in truth, he’d gone and put the fear of crashing in me and, for the first time ever on a flight, I too thought we might actually die. I was pleased that I managed to remain so cool.

Needless to say, we landed safely in Macao a short while later. Our bad buddy movie did not stop there, however, for we still had a long bus and ferry ride together, followed by a taxi to Nathan Rd in Kowloon, where, it just so happened, we were staying in adjacent hotels. Fortunately, however, I had lost my mobile phone on the ferry and there was little hope of me making any further efforts to continue our acquaintance. I did indeed feel guilty, after all, we’d been through a lot together, but Harry had almost driven me entirely bonkers and I couldn’t risk going all the way.

So there I was in Hong Kong. For the five weeks previous, I had been travelling through Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand and I was pleased to be in the presence of some startlingly different subject matter. Most of the places I’d visited, with the exception of Bangkok, which had astonished me with its modernity, were nothing like this. They were either shabby and run down, places where urban neglect weighed heavily, or they were simply small towns, often picturesque, but with no real high-rise development. Hong Kong had the immediate promise of arresting landscape and architecture, and I rubbed my hands together in anticipation of this contrast.

Over the next few days I spent my time wandering around Hong Kong, shooting everything of interest. At first I found it hard to make the most of the subject matter. Architecture makes a great subject for geometrical compositions, but without living subjects it lacks a sense of scale and humanity and risks appearing too sterile. For all the high-rise modernity around me, some of it rather old and weathered, I struggled to find the right tone, angles and themes to give import to the metropolis. It took a while to dawn on me that the abundant great architecture, alongside the dire, and the special geography of Hong Kong, were, in effect, a grand distraction. The sharp jab of the The Peak, the tall, forested hills, the wide embrace of the harbour – at once brooding and light-hearted – and the serried needle apartments, were all an elegant backdrop for the people. It was people I’d focussed on in Cambodia and Vietnam, and, just as in those countries, I soon found the people of Hong Kong to be priceless subjects.

On the second morning of my visit, having moved very early across the water from Mon Kok to Wan Chai, I took a long walk around the neighbourhood. The sidewalks provided a constant stream of locals and visitors and, as is always the case with so many people, it was a great chance to capture diverse narratives within a single frame. It was a golden morning and I got off to a pleasing start in what ultimately proved to be one of my favourite shooting days ever. I began locally, doing laps of the blocks, then drifted off along Hennessy Rd and started trawling all the side-streets. I soon stumbled upon a glorious meat market. An entire street of butchers, with shirtless men in white aprons, surrounded by hanging cuts of beasts, dangling globes and a circus of shoppers – it was heaven. I have always had a love of shooting in markets, especially meat and fish markets. In Venice, Siem Reap, Hanoi, Darjeeling, Chiang Mai, New Delhi, New York, Singapore, Sarajevo, Tokyo and Jodhpur to name a few, I’ve gotten some of my favourite photographs.

On this day I spent about forty minutes with the butchers, then made my way up towards The Peak. I had not expected to be so impressed by the view, but it was powerful and wide. The clarity of the light and the grandeur of this seemingly smog-free hive lifted me into a thrill. Before me was one of the greatest cityscapes on the planet, a place of chaos, romance and legend. A hot bustle of enterprise and slog, a fracas in perpetual motion, it was stunning. When I left The Peak, I made my way down to the harbour, which now seemed easier to interpret. The weather was proving an unexpected boon. For weeks on end I’d been shooting in a haze, with glaring off-white skies and washy sunlight. Here at last the sky was a rich blue and the sunlight clean and sharp. I took the ferry across the harbour, back and forth a few times, and wandered along the overpasses looking for vistas. When the afternoon finally drew down and the sun hung low in the harbour mouth, I was fortunate to witness some magnificent illuminations and plays of light.

Anyway, enough out of me. Enjoy the photographs, all of which were taken Monday, July 20, 2009. They are not in chronological order.

 

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The assassination on Thursday, July 27, of top rebel general Abdel Fattah Younes, has caused considerable consternation about the integrity of the National Transitional Council (NTC) and the rebel movement in Libya as a whole.

Initial reports suggested that the assassination was carried out by Islamists loyal to Gaddafi, who accosted the general after he was recalled to Benghazi to discuss the situation at the front line. This rumour was denied by the NTC’s leader, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who on August 1 issued a statement to the effect that a warrant had been issued for General Younes’ arrest by his deputy Ali Essawi, on grounds of suspicion about possible links with Gaddafi loyalists. Initially there was no mention of a warrant. It was after Younes’ release last Thursday that he and two aides were gunned down, allegedly, by two of the men assigned to escort him.

According to the account of a rebel figure who spoke anonymously to AFP, one of the men who shot Younes shouted that he was a traitor who had killed their father in Derna. He also claimed that the men were members of the February 17th Martyrs Brigade, a claim later rejected when the blame was transferred to the al-Nidaa Brigade. Despite Jalil’s assertion that the assassins were not Islamists, suspicion still hangs over a group of men from the religiously conservative town of Derna.

Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam recently told the New York Times that he was seeking ties with Islamists in the east to turn them against their more liberal allies amongst the rebels. Ali Sallabi, a senior rebel figure, confirmed that there had been dialogue with Gaddafi’s son, but that any claim of a split amongst the rebels was baseless. “It’s a lie that seeks to create a crack in the national accord,” Sallabi said. He went on to claim that the dialogue has always hinged on three points: “Gaddafi and his sons must leave Libya, the capital must be protected from destruction and the blood of Libyans must be spared.”

With so many military and political figures having defected from Gaddafi’s regime to the rebels, there have long been questions about the degree of dialogue between the NTC and Gaddafi’s regime. Younes himself was a very high profile defection when he joined the rebellion in February, having long been a close ally of Gaddafi’s and having served as interior minister in his government. He was initially given command of the rebel forces, yet, unable to shake the taint of his association with Gaddafi, despite a four million dollar bounty on his head, he was later moved to Chief of Staff.

Some commentators have downplayed the importance of Younes to the rebel movement, pointing out that it has never relied upon a single charismatic figure to sustain its momentum. Yet the rebels have not only lost a significant military leader, they have also turned violently inwards in an attempt to root out suspected fifth-columnists. The rebel forces and vigilante groups, particularly the February 17th Martyrs Brigade, have, from the start, been arbitrarily arresting, imprisoning and murdering suspected Gaddafi supporters, yet the ferocity has intensified in the wake of Younes’ killing.

On Sunday, July 31, several suspected Gaddafi loyalists were killed and at least 63 arrested, following a battle lasting several hours at the stronghold of the al-Nidaa brigade, in the city of Benghazi. Ismail al-Salabi, the military leader of the rebel faction, February 17 Martyrs Brigade, the de-facto internal security force in Benghazi, said the operation was “100 per cent successful”. He went on to claim that they had not only found explosives and military equipment with which they intended to carry out terrorist attacks in Benghazi, but also documents clearly linking the al-Nidaa Brigade to Gaddafi.

With so much paranoia in the rebel camp, it is difficult to confirm such claims, let alone know who to believe. The February 17th Martyrs Brigade is known to contain members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), renowned for their complete distrust of anyone linked to Gaddafi, and before the al-Nidaa Brigade were blamed for Younes’ killing, suspicion rested on them. The NTC has established an investigative committee to look into the assassination, yet just how free and objective this will be is anyone’s guess.

There are thus many legitimate concerns about the arbitrary justice being applied to suspected Gaddafi loyalists. Ultimately the rebel forces and the NTC must be held to account for their methods and practices and foreign governments must remain vigilant to human rights abuses. Just how much influence the military brigades have on the NTC’s political decisions is also a matter of significant concern.

On the 30th of July, the head of the NTC, Mustafa Jalil, announced a clampdown on these informal groups.

“The time has come to disband these brigades”, said Jalil. “Anybody who refuses to take part in this decree will be tried with the full measure of the law.”

The ultimatum includes an offer to join the rebel armed forces on the front-line or be incorporated into the Benghazi security forces, otherwise, to lay down their arms. In recent months a better trained, equipped, uniformed and hierarchical armed forces has emerged, allowing the rebels to co-ordinate their troops and materiel in a more professional manner, with effective command and communications structures. The presence of the brigades has increasingly become a liability, both militarily and politically.

This is clearly a testing time for the rebels, whose recent gains in western Libya suffered a blow with the loss of the village of Al-Jawsh at the foot of the Nafusa Mountains and whose attempts to recapture the key eastern oil town of Brega have proven slow, despite sending a considerable army of men and equipment to the purpose. Last Tuesday the rebel forces, who had advanced into the suburbs of Zlitan, a key town on the approach to Tripoli, suffered a fierce counter-attack from well equipped and heavily armed pro-Gaddafi forces. Having been given covert assurances that they would be welcomed in the town, the rebels soon suspected they had been lured into a trap. Yet, despite repeated fierce attacks from Gaddafi forces, the rebels have shored up their positions, reinforced their troops significantly, brought up more equipment and held their lines. The fighting continues daily. As Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons said, “would you believe this is Ramadan?”

Irrespective of these difficulties, most commentators agree that the broader strategic, tactical and political momentum is firmly on the side of the NTC. At a meeting in Turkey on July 15, the United States and Turkey joined no less than thirty other nations in recognising the NTC as Libya’s legitimate government. Last Monday, France released US $259 million dollars of frozen funds to the NTC. NATO’s continued airstrikes have been effective in degrading Gaddafi’s forces, along with his command and control infrastructure in and around the capital, Tripoli. Despite widespread and legitimate concerns about “collateral damage” from NATO’s air campaign, there seems little inclination on behalf of the nations involved to scale back the campaign until it has achieved its purpose, which, despite protestations otherwise under the guise of protecting civilians from Gaddafi’s forces, seems to be, quite unambiguously, regime change.

In the meantime, we must not forget the humanitarian crisis that has emerged. As of 14 June, the number of Libyan refugees in Egypt stood at 346,113, with a further 543,003 in Tunisia and another 30,825 in Chad. The conflict has disrupted the entire country and displaced almost a million people, causing immense economic and infrastructural damage, as well as leaving many long-term emotional scars. Casualties, both military and civilian, are now estimated at more than 12000 people.

What will happen in coming weeks is anyone’s guess. There remains the possibility of an internal coup as the pressure mounts on Gaddafi, yet for now he appears secure, if threatened and paranoid, in the capital of his shrinking fiefdom. There seems little likelihood of a political solution without Gaddafi’s removal, and hence the increasingly deadly and costly conflict is likely to continue for some time. Soon, no doubt, there will be further pressure on the rebels, particularly insofar as scrutiny of their future intentions and capabilities are concerned. If they are ultimately successful in this conflict, many further questions will be asked as to what process will emerge for the construction of a new Libya.

 

This article was first published in New Matilda on 08/08/11:

http://bit.ly/RebelsAtCrossroads

 

 

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